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Parking committee gears up for tough task

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A seven-member stakeholder committee made up of public officials, downtown merchants and business representatives could meet as early as this week to consider recommendations from the city’s downtown parking study.

But one member of the committee is already questioning what the committee is supposed to do.

Tom Dell, a downtown retailer who will represent downtown businessmen on the committee, said he has reservations about the committee’s role. He characterized formation of the committee as an attempt to show the city is doing something about the downtown parking issue. But he said the new committee has no clear direction and does not have a city department head taking a leadership role.

“It appears we are a bunch of people getting together to talk about the study,” he said.

Committee members, in addition to Dell, are Columbus City Councilmen representatives Dascal Bunch and Kenny Whipker, Columbus Redevelopment Commission representatives Frank Jerome and Steven Scgalski, Catina Furnish from Cummins, Inc. and one as-yet-unnamed representative from the downtown restaurants. Jerome is a city councilman, but is representing the redevelopment commission on the committee.

The committee will set a course for organizing how the city implements results of an $85,000 parking study from Boston-based consultants Nelson/Nygaard, Mayor Kristen Brown told city councilmen when presenting an organizational structure for implementing the parking study.

The mayor and Redevelopment Director Heather Pope came up with the structure and presented it to the council and redevelopment commission March 4. The plan also includes listing roles of various city departments — the city police department will handle technology use and enforcement, zoning changes would be handled by the city planning department and city engineering would handle parking accessibility.

Jerome said the committee will be tasked with taking the study recommendations and matching them up with the city departments that must research or implement each part. The committee will look closely at freeing up spaces in parking garages and making sure those spaces are used effectively. Jerome said he would also like to see an anonymous survey among downtown business employees about where they are actually parking and why.

The committee doesn’t need to know whether there will be paid parking or timed parking downtown to start working on the recommendations, Jerome said.

“We can do all kinds of stuff before we get there,” he said, adding that he doesn’t think the city council is interested in paid parking.

The committee will work with the timed parking in place now, but do it better, Jerome said.

The councilman wants the committee to learn more about the downtown employees who are working against the system to take up spaces that downtown businesses want for their customers. “That’s what people are doing now, scamming the system,” Jerome said.

The Nelson/Nygaard study recommended paid parking in the downtown core area, in part to re-educate downtown employees through having to pay hourly rates that those spaces should go to customers.

But according to Dell, without the citizen committee’s knowledge, a second option was added at the request of Mayor Kristen Brown that continues the city’s current practice of timed parking in the downtown core area. That recommendation lowers the allotted time from the three hours allowed now to one or two hours.

“I was pretty much caught off guard with that,” Dell said. “I would much rather have had that vetted through our (citizen) committee and let us make a recommendation rather than have it as a second option in the study.”

Study results

The parking study and a survey of 1,000 residents from last year showed Columbus has 5,831 parking spaces in an area reaching from First to Eighth streets and from Lindsey Street to Lafayette, Pearl and Sycamore streets. The consultants say that based on the square footage of the buildings in the core downtown area, the city needs 5,681 parking spaces even under maximum use. The consultants added that maximum is rarely ever needed.

The problem, according to the study, is that available parking spaces in the downtown core aren’t always conveniently located or easily found. The study says many of the most-sought-after parking spaces, those in front of downtown businesses, are used by downtown business employees who engage in an ongoing “parking shuffle” to move their cars to avoid a ticket.

Cummins has about 3,000 employees who work from offices in downtown Columbus. That’s another factor that has to be considered as the city approaches how to regulate downtown parking, Jerome said.

Cummins has its own garage, but it’s underutilized, according to the study.

The city’s parking monitors say the majority of tickets they issue are to downtown business employees who are violating the three-hour parking space limit. Part of the issue is that many of these employees have been paying the tickets rather than changing their habits, according to the city’s parking enforcement staff. Last year, the city collected $24,875 in parking fines, including all violations, from exceeding parking time limits to parking on a yellow line or in a handicapped space without a permit.

Brown has said in earlier interviews she is not in favor of paid parking downtown and wants the city to pursue the timed parking option.

“That’s another reason for our quandary as a committee,” Dell said. “I’m not getting a real good vibe that this committee has any teeth or power to do anything.”

Dell is also concerned about a section of the consultant’s report that indicates the consultants don’t feel the timed parking proposal will be as effective as paid parking.

“The Nelson/Nygaard team must note that many of these recommendations relied on instituting priced parking in the areas of highest demand, both as a means of allocating those spaces to the highest and best users and to set a context by which other parking and travel options would be measured,” according to the consultants. “Thus, this alternative scenario will not be as effective in helping meet the city’s goals of having available parking for customers, establishing clear employee parking areas, supporting economic goals and growth and protecting residential neighborhoods from spillover.”

The committee is left in limbo, Dell said, between the mayor’s preference and the consultant’s recommendation.

He theorized that eventually the committee would need to recommend to the redevelopment commission and the city council about whether paid parking should be downtown or the timed parking should continue.

Jerome said the committee will be taking the recommendations and working through city departments to change the way the system works now. He would also like to get more public input in the process.

“We would want to know, are you willing to pay 50 cents an hour for a space in front of a store, or would your rather drive around the block a couple of times and walk a block to the store?” he said. “The people that go downtown should have an opinion about it.”

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