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Parking reform by committee

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It may take “a village” to establish a new parking plan for downtown Columbus.

Steering the process will be a committee of six or seven members representing key stakeholders — public officials, downtown merchants and downtown restaurants, plus a representative from the region’s largest employer. The Cummins Inc. world headquarters is on the edge of downtown, and the engine maker has about 3,000 employees who work from offices in downtown Columbus.

Council president Dascal Bunch and councilman Frank Jerome volunteered to represent the council, but the parking committee roster has yet to be filled out.

The organizational shape of this effort was crafted during Tuesday night’s City Council meeting, which covered a lot of ground but did not attempt to answer the most controversial parking decision facing elected officials: Reintroduce paid parking or continue with free parking for a limited time?

That decision will be made by the City Council as the process moves forward.

Boston-based consultant Nelson/Nygaard, hired last May for $85,000 to evaluate downtown parking, originally recommended a return to paid parking in the downtown core area. At the request of Mayor Kristen Brown, however, the consultants came back with a second option to modify the city’s current approach of timed parking.

The parking study and a survey of 1,000 residents last year found Columbus had 5,831 parking spaces in an area reaching from First to Eighth streets and from Lindsey Street to Lafayette, Pearl and Sycamore streets. According to the study, based on the square footage of the buildings in the area, it would need 5,681 parking spaces if all businesses, apartments and stores were using the maximum number of parking spaces. But the study also noted the maximum number isn’t ever really needed.

While the study determined that Columbus already had enough parking spaces downtown to meet its needs, the complicating factor is available spaces aren’t always conveniently located or easily found.

Consultants reported many of the most sought-after spaces in front of downtown businesses are used by downtown business employees, who move their vehicles from space to space in hopes of avoiding a ticket. The downtown parking policy now is a maximum three-hour timed parking in the core area, even though some drivers try to skirt that by moving their cars from one spot to another over the course of a day.

The parking study defines the core area as Washington Street between Second and Fifth streets and one block from Washington on Third and Fourth streets. An optional addition to the core area is Washington between Fifth and Seventh streets.

Paying for convenience

Retailer Tom Dell, who led the local steering committee that worked with the consultants to come up with the parking plan, maintained that downtown visitors — whether customers or downtown business employees — want to park where it’s convenient.

Dell said the sentiment of some downtown business owners is metered parking will create spaces for patrons willing to pay for convenience, something downtown business employees will not be willing to do.

Dell said many of those employees will instead opt for free parking options outside of the city core.

The study also found available parking isn’t being used efficiently. It determined:

The U.S. Postal Service doesn’t use all its spaces in the Jackson Street garage.

Cole Apartments aren’t filling their reserved spaces in the Third Street Garage.

The Cummins garage at Sixth Street is underutilized.

Those who issue parking tickets downtown confirm the majority of tickets issued are going to downtown business employees.

The city last year collected $24,875 in parking fines for all types of violations, from exceeding parking limits to parking on a yellow line or in a handicapped zone without a permit.

What’s enough time?

Council members shared concerns about both parking options.

Questioning a downtown survey that showed most customers want at least two-and-a-half hours in a free parking space for a downtown visit, councilman Jerome asked whether that much time was really needed.

“People at the kidscommons say that three hours isn’t enough,” Dell said.

Sometimes, families decide they can’t visit the children’s museum for enough time and still go out to eat downtown because of the timed parking limits.

Dell believes timed parking tends to drive visitors out of the downtown area.

Studying parking ordinances

Councilman Frank Miller wants to review current city ordinances about parking to determine what changes are needed.

“We should be discussing what we’re responsible for and concentrate on what we’re responsible for doing,” Miller said.

There are multiple city ordinances that deal with parking, City Attorney Jeff Logston explained.

A list of the ordinances will be part of information assembled for the parking committee as it oversees the process and will make its way to the council, Logston said

When councilman Jim Lienhoop asked about how parking is enforced downtown now, the council learned that one parking department employee is patrolling the entire core area, writing down license plate numbers and times by hand on paper.

The city had computerized equipment years ago to monitor parking, but it broke and hasn’t been replaced, Police Chief Jason Maddix said.

The parking software was not compatible with the city’s complicated tiered parking-fine system, he said.

Tickets start with a warning, and then are $10 for a second offense. Tickets then increase in $5 increments for each offense until reaching the maximum $30 for a calendar year.

On the list of city assignments, the police department will be handling technology used in parking enforcement.

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