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For area panel members, key question: What now?

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Cars line Washington Street, Friday, Feb. 21, 2014, in downtown Columbus. Mayor Kristen Brown will recommend that the city keep free, time-limit parking downtown rather than install parking meters when the city council is asked to make a choice next month.
Cars line Washington Street, Friday, Feb. 21, 2014, in downtown Columbus. Mayor Kristen Brown will recommend that the city keep free, time-limit parking downtown rather than install parking meters when the city council is asked to make a choice next month.

Columbus residents wondering what the city will do with its downtown parking study should take heart.

A city committee assigned to implement it isn’t sure what to do with it either — at least not yet.

Representatives from the City Council, redevelopment commission, Cummins Inc. and downtown business organizations, along with some city department heads, met for the first time Wednesday as the downtown parking study committee.

They were assigned by Mayor Kristen Brown with taking the $85,000 Nelson/Nygaard parking study recommendations and choosing what to change or what not to change about parking in the downtown’s core.

It didn’t take long for some of the committee members to question why they were at the table.

“What is the role or function of this committee?” redevelopment commission member Steven Scgalski asked.

“Are we defining the recommendations ourselves? What is our mission?”

He questioned what committee members were being asked to do, since the consultants already had pretty much laid out what needed to be done.

“If we aren’t extremely organized, this is a whole lot of work with nothing being realized,” he said.

He soon was joined by downtown business representative Tom Dell, who also questioned the committee’s mission.

“There is no reason to rehash a study that is well done, well documented and has good reasoning,” Dell said. “Unless this group can formulate a clear-cut mission, we’re just gathering to chat. It’s great to put a committee together, but we have no direction in which to move.”

The Nelson/Nygaard study recommended the city install paid parking in a downtown core area as an effort to re-educate downtown employees that parking in front of their businesses isn’t good for their downtown businesses because they are taking up customer spaces.

However, at Brown’s request, the consultants

added a second option that modified the city’s current parking policy, which allows downtown visitors to stay in one downtown core parking spot for three hours and then must leave.

That has resulted in a sort of parking “downtown shuffle,” with people leaving their cars in one spot for three hours and then moving them elsewhere in hopes they don’t get caught. When they are caught, the city has learned most parking violators simply pay the ticket as part of losing in the “downtown shuffle” gamble.

Last year, the city collected $24,875 in parking fines, although this includes all violations, from exceeding time limits to parking in a handicapped space without a permit.

The second downtown parking option lowers that time limit to one to two hours but also says it won’t be as effective as making visitors pay a meter or kiosk. That strategy will move the employees out of those spaces because they won’t want to pay hourly rates, according to the study. But visitors who are traveling downtown to retail businesses or restaurants will pay hourly parking because they expect that as part of the expense of the trip, the study said.

Paid or free parking?

Catina Furnish from Cummins Inc. was the first to acknowledge what she called “the elephant in the room.”

“From where we sit, we don’t want to jump to paid parking,” she said.

But she said Cummins does see a chance to do some small things that could provide a relief valve to the perceived parking shortage and then see what happens.

When committee members questioned where Cummins employees park, Furnish said the company discourages employees from using on-street parking downtown. But she added there are two things that happen — employees occasionally are in a hurry or late and opt for an on-street space.

And for Cummins employees who work at manufacturing plants coming to a meeting downtown, they know they will be out of the space within the three-hour time limit. Most people who work all day in the downtown Cummins offices park in the garage, she said.

Cummins has about 3,000 people who work in downtown Columbus, according to the company.

Councilman Kenny Whipker also acknowledged he did not want to jump into the expense of parking meters, saying he believed the parking problem was more of an enforcement issue. He suggested taking a bottom-line approach by determining the easy things to implement, such as re-evaluating how the Jackson Street garage is utilized and increasing enforcement efforts.

Earlier, council President Dascal Bunch, who volunteered to lead the new parking committee, drew some laughs when he suggested that it should “hurt” to get a parking ticket. He suggested that instead of giving a warning for a first offense, it should be a $50 ticket.

“I agree with Dascal,” Whipker said of putting some teeth into enforcement. “It has to hurt. There shouldn’t be a free pass the first time you get a ticket.”

The City Council has the responsibility of determining whether to change city ordinances to require paid parking in the downtown core area. Several council members have expressed opposition to paid parking, joining Mayor Brown on that position.

Committee’s role

City attorney Jeff Logston explained to committee members that their role was to determine what makes sense for the city — what changes should come first and what should follow when changing parking downtown.

The committee will provide feedback when city department heads need guidance on how to do something, such as evaluating how to find more on-street spaces or what kind of technology the police department needs for enforcement. Those recommendations would go to either to the redevelopment commission or the council, he said.

The parking study and a survey of 1,000 residents last year found that Columbus had 5,831 parking spaces in an area from First to Eighth streets and from Lindsey Street to Lafayette, Pearl and Sycamore streets. The study contends the city would need only 5,681 parking spaces if all businesses, apartments and stores were using the maximum number of spaces.

The study determined the most-sought-after spaces are filled with downtown business employees, and remaining available parking isn’t being used efficiently or consistently.

Committee members agreed to go over the study’s recommendations between now and the next meeting Wednesday and then be prepared to debate which recommendations they want to implement. Scgalski asked each committee member to consider how easy each recommendation would be to implement and what the impact would be.

There was some discussion on how the city could have a final parking study that didn’t contain an executive summary from the consultants with an easy-to-understand guide on how to implement it.

“When it comes down to it, it’s paid or not paid,” Dell said.

“The recommendations are exactly the same except for that. Paid will get you the availability you want, but it’s infrastructure. The downtown merchants are adamantly opposed to the one- to two-hours time limit.”

He said the committee’s recommendations ultimately will be about whether Columbus wants people to spend time downtown or not.

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