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Mayor Kristen Brown will recommend that the city keep free, time-limit parking downtown rather than install parking meters when the Columbus City Council is asked to make a choice next month.

“If the city council wants to go straight to meters, that’s their prerogative,” she said.

Brown and city Redevelopment Director Heather Pope took it upon themselves to dissect the completed downtown city parking study to determine how to implement its findings. The final report was given to the city’s redevelopment commission last week, but it is slightly different from the report city residents learned about late last year.

The first plan city officials considered called for metered parking in the downtown’s core area. The final version has additional recommendations if city officials want free, limited-time parking downtown. Brown told the council Tuesday that she requested consultants Nelson/Nygaard include the free parking option in the final version of the study.

The city awarded an $85,000 contract to Nelson/Nygaard of Boston in May to evaluate parking.

Working with a committee made up of downtown Columbus business owners, the consultant came up with recommendations and presented them at a joint council and redevelopment meeting in November. The study found that Columbus has parking spaces available downtown throughout each day, but those spaces aren’t always conveniently located or easily found.

The study also reported that many of the most sought-after spaces in front of downtown businesses are filled by downtown business employees who move their vehicles from one space to another, hoping to avoid a ticket for exceeding the three-hour limit.

Metered parking recommendations in the final report include:

Install meters in an area including Washington Street, between Third and Fifth streets, and Third, Fourth and Fifth streets between Jackson and Franklin streets. An optional area would be to include Washington between Fifth and Seventh streets for spillover.

Consider starting pricing at no more than 50 cents per hour and balance the hourly rate with employee permit prices and an off-street rate

No time limits on metered spaces

Free parking available surrounding the core area

Paid parking would be Monday through Friday only

Free parking recommendations in the final report include:

One- to two-hour time limits in the core area instead of the current three-hour limit

Three- to four-hour time limits on surrounding streets.

Unregulated parking in all other areas

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 Street to Eighth Street 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.

Ralph De Nisco, a senior associate with Nelson/Nygaard, said earlier that Columbus needed about 4,000 parking spaces to take care of actual use — about 1,800 spots fewer than are now available.

A perception that there is a downtown parking shortage exists because downtown parking spaces aren’t used efficiently, the study concluded.

For example, the U.S. Postal Service doesn’t use all its spaces in the Jackson Street garage, Cole Apartments are not filling all their reserved spaces in the Third Street Garage, and the Cummins garage at Sixth Street is being underutilized, Nelson/Nygaard reported.

Business, employee reaction

Retailer Tom Dell, who led the local steering committee that worked with parking consultant to come up with the plan, cautioned that if the city doesn’t move forward with some sort of implementation plan based on the study, Columbus downtown parking problems will only get worse.

“If you do not move forward ... we are rolling backward. It’s time to act,” Dell told redevelopment commission members last week.

Some downtown merchants and employees want metered parking downtown, and some don’t.

Lynne Hyatt, owner of Lockett’s Lady Shop, said she trusts the consultant’s recommendations and thinks parking meters would work.

“I can give my customers the 50 cents to park if it helps keep employees out of the spaces,” she said. She doesn’t want 12 parking meters in front of her store, one for every space on the block but wouldn’t mind kiosks placed at intervals. “I’m reluctant to be in favor, but I am in favor of it,” she said.

“Meters are ridiculous,” countered Dave Carothers, who has owned Max’s Jewelry for 42 years, a business that was his father’s.

Meters have been used before, and the downtown merchants worked a long time to get them removed, he said.

Parking meters or boxes would take away the effect of the downtown streetscaping and would be tacky, Carothers maintains.

It’s not uncommon for customers to drive around the block six or eight times to try to find a convenient parking space, and some can’t find one and leave, he said.

If Cummins required its employees to use parking in its garage and surface lot, much of the problem would be alleviated, Carothers contends.

His employees park a few blocks away from the store. But to do that, they must arrive as much as an hour before the store opens at 9 a.m. to find a spot.

“I live close enough that I can walk to avoid the parking problem in the summer,” said Holly Sonday, who works at the jewelry store and has worked other places downtown. “I don’t think parking meters will help.”

But Melinda Clark, an employee at the nearby Viewpoint Books, thinks metered parking would improve matters.

“I love the meters,” she said. “One- to two-hours (in the timed parking)? Nobody can go have a meal with that. What if you wanted to go find a book afterward? Even three hours isn’t enough time to do that,” she said.

Clark rents a parking space nearby, while fellow employee Polly Verbanic takes her chances by trying to find a parking space close to the bookstore that will fit her three-hour shift.

Sometimes, Verbanic works 3½ hours, and that’s where the problem comes in.

She risks a ticket or tries to find a spot outside the three-hour zone, which is sometimes impossible.

“You want people to make multiple trips downtown — run down and have lunch or take kids to The Commons,” Verbanic said.

The way parking is set up now, with the time limits, that isn’t easy to do, she said.

All Cummins employees are encouraged to use their designated parking areas in the company’s parking garage or surface lots during work hours, Cummins spokesman Jon Mills said. The company wants to be a good corporate citizen and support the city and the business community, he said. The company regularly communicates with employees about parking and is working with the city to improve parking and transit options, he said.

About 3,000 employees are assigned to the Cummins downtown buildings, Mills said.

The parking study recommends the company should continue to encourage its employees to use the Cummins reserved spaces, and that any reserved spaces in the Jackson Street garage should be eliminated and moved to the Cummins’ parking garage. Preferred parking areas for carpools and subsidized transit passes to encourage Cummins employees to utilize the bus system were mentioned in the recommendations.

How monitoring works now

Parking attendant Sharon Stark, out on her route checking cars parked downtown Thursday morning, explained why the time limit is confusing to those who try to park downtown.

“People need to look at the signs,” she said. “There are places you can park all day.”

But if you park in the three-hour-time-limit areas, you have three hours and that’s it, she said. Any additional time beyond that three hours can result in a ticket.

It doesn’t matter if the car is moved; the three hours is calculated from the first space the car occupies within the time-limit zone.

Although there isn’t a database to track specifically who is getting the most tickets downtown, Lisa Williams, administrative specialist supervisor for records, said the tickets are usually going to downtown business employees. If the employees continue to pay their tickets, the city doesn’t really have any recourse about it. Some companies pay parking tickets for their employees, Williams said.

Tickets start with a warning and then go up from $10, in $5 increments, for each offense. Once the motorist reaches $30, the tickets stay at that price until the next year, when the graduated fine system starts over.

In 2013, Columbus collected $24,875 in parking fines; however, this includes all violations, from hourly parking to parking on a yellow line or in handicapped zones without a permit.

Why Columbus is ‘going slow’

Although downtown business owners may be looking for a solution quickly from the city, the mayor says that isn’t possible.

More than one city department deals with downtown parking issues, and various city boards have supervisory authority over technical aspects of streets, signage and parking garages, she said.

The mayor pointed out that the redevelopment commission only controls the parking garages. Columbus police handle parking enforcement, the city engineer’s office handles street planning, and the city council would handle ordinances about parking, the mayor said.

The parking study recommendations span all aspects of these responsibilities, meaning representatives from the departments might need to be at the table for decision-making.

Saying that the redevelopment commission was asked to wait for final recommendations, and acknowledging the commission received the 37-page document last week, Brown said the city is motivated to move forward on recommendations, but that it will take huge effort collaboratively among city departments to do it.

For example, the city will have to examine the parking garages and determine from a revenue standpoint what changes could be made to leased spaces and public spaces.

“We have to be sure we are lease-break even — how many do we lease out. That revenue is important,” Brown said.

Another example is a request by Cummins to create a card-entry system for The Cole’s garage, where the company leases about 200 spaces weekdays and hasn’t used the gated system in the past.

The region’s largest employer is asking the city to use the gates that are already there and set up a software system so any Cummins employee nationwide could use a company badge to park in the leased spaces. However, Cummins doesn’t want the city or the parking management to have access to the badge information, Pope said.

The lead time to write that software is as long as six months, Pope said, adding that’s just one example of how time-consuming any parking change can be.

Whatever recommendation is chosen, there isn’t money in the budget right now for increased enforcement, if it is determined to be necessary with the recommendations, the mayor said.

The city also must consider changes to traffic flow, traffic counts and whether traffic congestion could occur if lanes are taken out of some streets for more parking. State officials would have to be consulted for any changes to state highways involving parking, the mayor said.

“Each one of these things is doable, but it will be a lengthy, time-consuming process,” she said.

Cost of parking meters?

Parking study consultant Nelson/Nygaard was not asked to estimate costs for Columbus if the city wanted to install a parking meter system, according to Lisa Jacobson, one of the consultants from Boston who worked on the study. Because there are so many choices a city can make, from single-space meters to kiosks, and from contracting with a company to purchase or lease the system, costs can vary widely, she said.

When Bloomington installed 1,500 single-space parking meters in its downtown and went live with new parking enforcement in August, the cost for purchasing equipment and installation was $1 million, said Andrea Roberts, assistant deputy director of public works. Those meters contained technology that allow customers to pay with coins or credit card or to use a mobile app to pay.

Jacobson said that might be a good ballpark number for a city the size of Columbus, but it would depend on the type of equipment the city chose, how many meters it wanted or if it wanted kiosks instead of single-space monitoring. Some companies will even do a pilot program with a city and put in meters for six months as a trial run to let the city decide whether to purchase the system and take the meters out if the city decides against it.

“I do know that no matter what the city chooses, they won’t lose money with meters,” Jacobson said. “They end up paying for themselves rather quickly.”

Who takes lead?

While the city has the extensive study, it does not contain any advice on who leads the next step toward changing the parking configuration downtown or how the process should proceed. At last week’s redevelopment commission meeting, it became somewhat of a hot potato, as a few commission members threw out some ideas for the next step.

Commission member Sarah Cannon mentioned hiring another consultant for a limited time period to “draw the map for us” as to how to implement the parking recommendations.

Commission member Steven Scgalski recommended the city appoint a leader to take the recommendations to all the city departments to begin implementation, but he added he would “defer on the person to do that,” drawing some laughter from his fellow commission members.

Because of parking garage issues, a redevelopment commission member should be a part of whatever group considers the parking recommendations, city council member Frank Jerome said.

“An incremental approach” was suggested by commission member Dave Wright.

“Any approach is better than nothing,” shop owner Dell replied.

In the meantime, the city is putting the complete parking study on its website, columbus.in.gov, along with incremental reports that were made through 2013. Last year, the city asked for comments about the plan by publishing it on the website.

After recapping the parking meter recommendations and the no-meter recommendations, Brown said she will ask the city council to consider what kind of progress can be made without going to paid parking. Then, those recommendations will be used to analyze which departments need to be involved and how the city will move forward.

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