It’s the problem that the city of Augusta has put off for much too long: the lack of parking in the downtown area.
Some downtown business owners claim Augusta doesn’t have a parking problem, but many downtown planners and developers see it in a much different light.
In order for Augusta to continue to grow and thrive by providing more residential units and commercial developments in the downtown area, it needs more parking spaces.
Just this week, two separate developers, Bryan Haltermann and Joseph Smith, told the Augusta Planning Commission that they need relief from the city’s parking requirements in order to develop their residential properties.
It’s time for the city to get real and look at downtown Augusta’s future parking needs and plan ahead.
Will it be easy?
Will it be cheap?
Will it be popular among locals?
Absolutely, not. But the parking problem cannot continue to be ignored and this debate has been going on for years and years.
Way back in April 2005, then-Downtown Development Authority and Main Street Augusta Director Chris Naylor presented a study of the city’s downtown parking that claimed Augusta was headed for a “parking crisis.”
The $52,000 report revealed that the two-hour parking limits along the downtown streets were not being enforced.
Big surprise there, eh?
By bringing back parking meters, Naylor tried to convince Augusta that it would put more money in the city’s pocket that could be used to help beautify downtown.
At the time, several downtown businesses owners didn’t buy it. They were worried it would kill shoppers coming to the downtown area.
Not long after Naylor released the parking report, he was shown the door.
Fast forward to 2009 and current Downtown Development Authority Executive Director Margaret Woodard once again tried to discuss the option of parking meters.
The DDA proposed metering 1,000 parking spaces in the downtown area that would charge $1 an hour, with a two-hour limit for curbside parking and a four-hour limit for the median lots.
The plan was to focus on the “Broad Street Corridor” which extends from Fifth Street to 13th along Broad and from Reynolds to Ellis along the side streets.
But the public didn’t support the plan and, therefore, the Augusta Commission quickly backed away from the proposal.
Even though Woodard publicly announced the controversial proposal to meter downtown parking spaces was officially “off the table,” DDA officials still got an earful from concerned citizens about parking meters at public meetings held in the White’s Building a few months later in 2010.
“We had parking meters,” said Chuck Ballas of Luigi’s Restaurant during the 2010 meeting. “What happened to them? They weren’t profitable, so we took them out. Now, we want to put them in again and destroy the business that we’ve got in the downtown area. We have just begun to bring people back downtown and we’re going to run them out ― for what? So some parking meter company can make money on us?”
Attempting to dig themselves out from the avalanche of bad publicity surrounding the parking meter concept, Woodard and Parking Committee chair Sanford Lloyd tried to explain that the enforcement of the existing two-hour limit was the new focus of their mission.
“What’s important for us is the management of the parking and to start getting data for the future,” Woodard said. “At the end of the day, we just want to do what’s best for downtown.”
Regardless of Woodard’s comments, members of the audience continued to vent about the meters.
In 2010, Window Gallery owner David Steele said the DDA was wrong for thinking parking spaces are worth money to downtown retailers.
“Parking spots do not generate revenue,” he said. “It’s the merchants who come down here and invest their lives and create businesses that people want to come to that generates the tax revenues.”
Unfortunately, the Window Gallery, which had been open since 1980, closed its doors in 2012.
But Woodward tried to explain that the point of the downtown parking regulations was to increase the turnover rate of parking spaces for customers visiting the downtown area, not generate money.
“With the construction of the TEE Center parking deck, we are displacing a lot of people,” Woodard said in 2010, adding that businesses back then were looking for additional spaces for their customers. “Our phones have been ringing off the hook.”
Well, guess what?
The DDA’s phones are still ringing off the hook because the city simply can’t get a real parking plan in place.
But even today many downtown property owners truly believe one of the keys to the future success of downtown Augusta is easy access to parking for patrons.
“There are so many opportunities for the city to invest in parking downtown,” Sean Wight, the owner of three popular downtown restaurants — Frog Hollow Tavern, Farmhaus Burger and Craft & Vine, told the Metro Spirit a few years ago. “When they do that, the retailers will come. Every retailer that I’ve talked to has said, ‘You need more parking downtown.’ And I love the small, privately-owned shops, but we need a couple of national retailers downtown like a Lucky Brand jeans or a few things like that to really bring more people downtown.”
The national retailers will actually help the smaller, independent shops thrive, Wight said.
“All of the cool, private, eclectic stuff is awesome, but that is not enough to bring the masses down here,” he said. “It’s just like King Street in Charleston. We need a couple of those big national brands downtown. I think there has to be a balance. And, as soon as the city invests in parking downtown, I believe it will happen.”
Folks, whether you like it or not, it’s time to talk parking in downtown Augusta.
Let’s get real.