Public officials and downtown employers are seeking potential solutions to a downtown parking shortage.
Ideas under consideration include shuttling employees into the city center or giving them a special rate to be allowed to park downtown for an unlimited time.
Mayor Kristen Brown said the city is considering more immediate steps, including opening additional streets to unlimited on-street parking.
The roughly 430 free, unlimited parking spots downtown fill up early on weekday mornings. That leaves some downtown employees — how many is unclear — without designated spots in a parking pickle.
They can park away from downtown and walk to work, an inconvenient solution especially in winter. Or they can park in one of the city’s roughly 465 spots with a three-hour limit, hoping to have time later to move the vehicle and enough fortune to find an unlimited spot.
Brown said the city plans to pay for a parking study to determine the extent of the problem and propose possible solutions.
Downtown workers said the lack of convenient parking is frustrating, and business owners said unhappy workers aren’t good for business.
Lisa Williams, administrative specialist supervisor for Columbus Police Department, which oversees parking enforcement, said the situation is difficult to address. Employees and customers need a place to park, she said, and business owners get upset when either employees or customers struggle to find adequate parking.
She said the three-hour limit is meant to discourage people from lingering.
“What we try is to keep people moving,” Williams said.
She encouraged downtown employees to park in their designated spots or in the free, unlimited-time areas, including the infrequently used small lot west of The Republic’s parking lot, on the northwest corner of First and Jackson streets, which has 12 spots.
Brown said people also can park in the Pump House lot and on Lindsey Street next to the Pump House, which offer a combined estimated 100 spots. She said people also usually can find spots on Washington Street between First and Second streets and on First Street between Lafayette Avenue and Washington Street.
“Downtowns are dense by design and pedestrian-friendly,” Brown said. Downtown employees can find parking spots “if there’s a willingness to walk a little,” she said.
Those who want to spend $35 per month for a spot in either of the city’s two lease lots, at the southeast corner of Fourth and Franklin streets and the northwest corner of Sixth and Franklin, can have their name added to a waiting list.
But getting a spot can take years, Williams warned.
Meanwhile, some downtown workers and employers are proposing more immediate solutions.
Sally Johnson, who works in a downtown real estate office and who recently obtained a leased parking spot, suggested that the city should allow downtown workers to purchase a $20 tag that would enable them to park in certain areas throughout the workday.
In addition, she said the city should enforce that employees of downtown businesses with designated lots to actually park in those lots, rather than take away the few precious all-day public spots.
“There needs to be a plan for employees,” said Laura DeDominic, a downtown landlord and business owner. “I do know my tenants have (parking) issues.”
Steve Leach, owner of Garage Pub & Grill, said the city could run a shuttle between downtown and the Mill Race Park lot, which it used to do.
However, the Mill Race lot property actually is owned by Cummins, which has seen significantly greater need for downtown parking because of the hundreds of employees it has added in the past few years.
Cummins allows public parking on that lot on weekends and outside business hours, said Catina Furnish, who handles real estate for the company in the Americas. However, the company uses the lot for overflow parking during peak hours and seasons.
Some downtown employees also suggested that extending parking to four or five hours would help — though downtown merchants warn that the city must have some mechanism in place to prevent people from taking prime customer spots for long periods.
Many cities face similar challenges, said Karen Gossett, who owns an interior design business in Seymour and has served on tourism boards there.
But unlike many other cities, Columbus has much to offer downtown, Gossett said on a recent Friday afternoon as she lunched at Bistro 310, having ahi tuna with a glass of white wine.
People in Columbus easily can exceed the three-hour parking limit, for example, if they have lunch, shop at Lockett’s and enjoy some ice cream at Zaharako’s, she said.
The Bloomington City Council recently delayed a vote on a proposal to install parking meters downtown amid opposition from business owners, who plan to introduce a counter proposal because they fear the city’s proposal will harm businesses.
Tom Dell, a spokesman for the Columbus Downtown Merchants Association, said the city and employers must work together to take steps to address the parking shortage, especially for downtown employees.
It’s a complex issue, he said.
You want to have a mechanism, such as a three-hour limit, to get some turnover, and Columbus has decided to offer some parking for free, unlike many other cities where visitors incur a charge as soon as they turn off their engines.
“You’re never going to solve a parking shortage within a downtown area,” Dell said.
The city certainly should avoid constantly adding parking lots and garages, otherwise you’ll have lots of parking downtown but no commerce, he said.
“I don’t know what the solution is,” Dell said, “but we’ve got to work together.”
Columbus Redevelopment Director Heather Pope said some of the parking difficulties in Columbus could be addressed once the city and a company it hired implement changes in the two city-owned parking garages.
The company, Carmel-based REI Real Estate, had proposed, for example, that fewer spots in the garages be made available for leases to increase the number of public parking spots.
“We’re still working on the best solution,” Pope said.
Brown said REI plans to install gates at the Fourth Street garage as early as the middle of March, and that the 100 public spots in that garage will be free for the first three hours, but that people can pay to stay longer.
The city also has identified areas that it may turn into free, unlimited on-street parking spots, Brown said. Those areas include the block of First Street between Washington and Jackson streets, Franklin Street between City Hall and the Bartholomew County Jail, and Eighth Street between Jackson and Washington streets.
Brown said making sure that the garages are utilized more efficiently, for example by overselling the spots to increase occupancy, also could help.
The parking study will give the city details about who needs parking spots and when, which types of spots — three-hour or unlimited — are in greatest demand and where, and how the challenges can be addressed most efficiently.
Laurence Brown, director of the Columbus Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, said he understands people’s frustrations.
He and the mayor also suggested the city take a long-term approach to the problems, perhaps by creating incentives for bicycle and pedestrian traffic by making the city more friendly to pedestrians and cyclists. Such a move would follow the lead of other cities that have successfully addressed parking challenges.
For example, Portland, Ore., placed a moratorium on adding parking in the 1970s, Laurence Brown said. As a result, parking prices went up, and Portland built a high-quality public transit system.
Portland’s downtown is vibrant in part because people go there without cars, he said. The city’s center is dense with destinations, not parking garages.
It also saves cities the trouble of having to manage the garages, he said.