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Editorial: Garages vital to downtown despite recent lack of parking crunch

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WITH three new parking garages added to the downtown cityscape during the past five years, one would have thought the long-unresolved issue of inadequate space would have faded into distant memory.

On the contrary, it’s still difficult to find open spaces on Washington or its side streets, and city officials have served notice that they are stepping up enforcement efforts to ticket violators of the three-hour grace period the city now provides.

For better than half a century, various business and government leaders had warned that the city’s parking crunch throttled economic development and would lead to the exodus of retail merchants from what has been described as “everyone’s neighborhood.”

They were right on that latter point in that many long-standing downtown businesses did make a mass exodus into outlying areas in the 1960s and 1970s. But even with their departure, available space on Washington Street, in particular, was still scarce during workday hours.

City officials made a breakthrough in 2007 when the City Council authorized construction of a garage at Fourth and Jackson streets, creating 400 new spaces.

That was followed in rapid and amazing succession by a second garage on Jackson Street across from the courthouse (700 spots) and a third at Sixth and Washington (350).

The number of added spaces is somewhat misleading. Only two of the garages are city-owned. The third at Sixth and Washington streets is used exclusively for Cummins Inc. staff.

The Second Street garage is also made available to Cummins Inc. employees during workday hours. A portion of the 700 spots will be used by tenants at the soon-to-be-opened Cole apartments.

Of the 400 spaces in the public garage at Fourth and Jackson streets, approximately 300 are leased by downtown businesses for their employees.

Although all of the 1,450 spaces in the garages are set aside for downtown users, the city’s parking crunch is still tight, and the ones having the most difficulty finding available spaces are those who come from the city’s other neighborhoods or visitors.

The explanation is pretty simple. Cummins Inc. has created more than 1,500 positions in the downtown area alone in the last five years.

Downtown traffic also has increased tremendously with the addition of a number of restaurants and entertainment areas that have proven extremely popular.

City officials are limited as to steps that can be taken to free up more spaces. Right now the stepped-up enforcement program appears to be the best available option.

One of the perennial problems in downtown parking appears to be the violation of the three-hour limit by some employees and residents of the area. It is especially pronounced during the holiday season.

Although there has been some grumbling about strict adherence to parking codes, violators have certainly been made aware of the rules of the game. Even time-honored tactics such as moving from one space to another after the lapse of a three-hour period have been negated by tougher enforcement. Today the three-hour grace period is a one-time-a-day freebie.

Volunteers have been brought into the enforcement game, increasing the likelihood for violators of getting caught.

While open parking spaces might be hard to come by for some, the alternatives of a garage(s)-less downtown are options most of us would not like to consider.

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