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As downtown Columbus grows, so do parking challenges. What should be done?

If you’re heading downtown, watching this might just save you from getting a $40 parking ticket.

As downtown Columbus grows, parking is becoming a costly pain for some, with $40 tickets for first-time violations. Here's a basic guide to downtown parking, including where you can park free.
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As downtown Columbus grows, parking is becoming a costly pain for some, with $40 tickets for first-time violations. Here's a basic guide to downtown parking, including where you can park free.

As downtown Columbus continues to grow adding new apartments and businesses, with it comes pressures on parking that are causing angst among those working and playing in what is referred to as the Uptown district.

On-street parking has become a challenge, in particular for those working and doing business in the district. That includes perceived aggressive enforcement of timed parking zones, with a violation that can set a downtown worker or customer back $40 for an initial ticket.

The city counters that while there is limited street parking, there is plenty of space available in downtown parking garages. That includes the free RiverCenter deck that is underused by the public despite a short block-or-two walk from most area businesses. There also is garage parking for a small fee on Bay Avenue and and free first floor parking in a garage on Front Avenue. Meanwhile, those who live downtown pay $25 per year for unlimited street parking.

Officials say they are working to find solutions to the problem.

Erin Widick, owner of Posh Peach, a woman’s clothing and accessories boutique in the 1100 block of Broadway, said something needs to be done to make parking more convenient for people shopping and dining downtown. Widick said she’s also concerned about employees who find themselves facing $40 tickets that double in cost if not paid within 10 days.

“We have customers, weekly, that complain about not being able to find parking, having to drive around multiple times,” she said. “It’s a big inconvenience for customers that can’t find a parking spot and have to park a couple of blocks away just to come shop with us. So we have seen a noticeable decline in sales and in customers coming down here because of the struggle.”

Widick, who did not provide specifics about a decrease in sales, said that as Columbus State University has grown, parking has become squeezed even more. The university added a new Health Sciences building in 2017 to existing music and theater schools downtown.

Madison Morgan works in the administrative office of a downtown restaurant. Morgan said the changes have left her and others holding $40 tickets with the fine doubling if they aren’t paid within the first 10 days. She said she has gotten four parking tickets.

“We only have two-hour parking (close by)... our servers have to be here at 10. Whenever they are working their shift they can’t leave to go move their car,” Morgan said.

She said she knows there are parking garages available, but they are not convenient enough for most people.

“I think parking meters wouldn’t be a bad idea,” she said.

Enforcement takes place on weekdays

Downtown parking enforcement encompasses a relatively small area, starting at Bay Avenue near the Chattahoochee River east to Third Avenue, and from Ninth Street north to 14th Street. Much of the parking district has 2-hour limits, while there are some 4-hour and 8-hour zones scattered within it, as well as reserved parking areas.

The 2-hour zones are in the busiest portions of downtown, such as on Broadway and the streets feeding into it. The hours for those zones are from 8 a.m. until 6 p.m. Monday through Friday, which are the primary hours that the city’s parking enforcement officers cruise the area seeking violators to parking ordinances.

Though new to downtown, Melissa Johnson, manager of the Rocket Fizz store that recently opened on Broadway, said the prospect of receiving a parking ticket is enough to keep her from leaving her vehicle in one of the 2-hour zones. She said she also doesn’t want to hinder any customers trying to get to her store.

“Parking is an issue, definitely,” she said. “I also want my customers to be able to park in front of the store. If I’m going to lose a sale because I’m parked out in front of the store, I don’t want to park there.”

Some see enforcement as a problem

Reynolds Bickerstaff, board chairman of Uptown Columbus Inc., which focuses on developing and marketing the area, said the issue of parking and what he and others view as overly aggressive enforcement of the parking zones has become problematic.

“What’s happening now is people are getting tickets at 2 hours and 2 minutes in the 2-hour parking zones,” he said. “They’re intentionally monitoring certain areas where they think there will be easy violations. You can’t park in the same block for more than two hours. So if you park and move your car 10 spaces down, you’ll get a ticket for doing that. How’s anybody supposed to know that rule?”

Bickerstaff said Uptown Columbus in recent years convinced the city to make parking in the RiverCenter garage free, but the city hasn’t made a big push to funnel more people into the garage. He believes part of the solution might be installing parking meters or perhaps closing the 1000 block of Broadway to traffic — the most vibrant area of Broadway — to encourage visitors to use the nearby garage more.

“We’ve heard from merchants that will have customers ask where they should park,” he said. “They park on the street and if it’s during the week they go rafting and come back after a two-and-a-half hour trip and they’ve got a ticket waiting for them. So that’s not a good way to send somebody home from our community. (Parking options) have got to be simple for visitors to understand.”

Transportation chief emphasizes free garages

Rosa Evans, Columbus’ director of transportation, believes a key piece of the downtown parking puzzle is getting residents and visitors to use the parking garages that are available to them. They often go unfilled, with the RiverCenter deck free to use and the Bay Avenue garage costing $2 per day. The first two floors of the CSU garage off Front Avenue also are free to the public.

“A lot of people don’t know that the parking garages are available,” Evans acknowledged. “The one thing I want to see happening and I’m going to put forward on our end is to talk about the parking availability at the garages. We’ve got it on our website, and we’ve talked about it in meetings with Uptown and they’ve tried to help get the word out. But we’re going to do a better job letting people know where they can park in the garages.”

She said that effort will include working with Uptown Columbus to market the parking amenities more to the public. The city also has recently released a video on Columbus Consolidated Government Access Television that covers specifics of parking in downtown and the role of enforcement in the district. The parking video also is available via YouTube.

Evans disputes the notion that her parking enforcement officers are being too aggressive with tickets while patrolling the downtown area, particularly during lunchtime. She could not immediately provide the number of tickets written in the Uptown district for the most recent fiscal year ending June 30.

She said there are five or six officers on the job now and at some point schedules may overlap with more than one officer in the area.

“That may be one of the reasons it seems like they’re aggressive. It could be an overlapping time with their schedules,” she said. “I don’t think that there’s any intention of picking lunch hour to ticket people. If that vehicle is past that (expired) time, they have to do their job.”

‘People have to get accustomed to changing a habit’

The Ledger-Enquirer rode along with an enforcement officer recently as he made his rounds. He spotted a vehicle in an area on Ninth Street, adjacent to the city’s Government Center, that was parked in a spot reserved for media. A man approached to find a ticket on his windshield, then asked the officer if it was $40, ultimately shaking his head and spouting, “Jesus,” before quickly jumping in his vehicle and driving off.

The enforcement officer then proceeded to 12th Street across from the federal courthouse building, where he marked each vehicle’s rear wheel with chalk and entered its tag number into a device. The two-hour time limit had begun during the lunch hour. A check of the same line of vehicles just over two hours later found only one in violation.

Evans pointed out that downtown is growing steadily and, like other cities that are adding people either through additional housing or visitation, there can be a parking learning curve that goes with it.

“People have to get accustomed to changing a habit,” she said. “Every place I go and visit, parking is always a premium. And it’s not unreasonably far to walk a couple of blocks in most places that you visit, (walking) two or three blocks for parking. If I go to Atlanta, I can walk farther than that.”

The transportation director also said she is working to get CSU and its researchers involved in a study this year to look at parking in the downtown area to determine if changes and improvements need to be made. She hasn’t approached Columbus Council with any details yet, but would like to see a study launched this spring, with Uptown Columbus also involved.

Uptown internal assessment focuses on parking

Ross Horner, president of Uptown Columbus, also oversees the Business Improvement District, which works to keep downtown clean and safe is keeping an eye on the issue.

“There was a lot of concern that when CSU was going to increase the amount of students down here that was going to have this big impact on Uptown,” Horner said. “We’ve done assessments. They’re internal, not a full blown study. What we do is we have a spreadsheet where we have our ambassadors (staffers) go around block by block and check the availability of spaces. We never found that we were over 55 percent of our parking capacity. So we’re trying to find what the issue is. The issue is different for whomever you talk to.”

That’s because of the diversity of who is visiting, living in and doing business in downtown, he said, as well as when someone is coming to the area and for a specific purpose. There may not be as many parking restrictions after 6 p.m. during the weekdays and on weekends in general, but that doesn’t mean parking can’t be an issue for many during special events. The issues are harder to pinpoint, he said, because it’s different for everyone.

“We’re changing dramatically every six months. And six months from now we’re going to look really different down here. We’re going to almost double the amount of people who live down here, and we’ll continue to bring in new businesses,” Horner said.

Widick, the owner of Posh Peach, said she would like to see specific 15-minute parking areas for customers of her boutique and other stores and restaurants so customers could park, run in grab their merchandise or lunch order, then depart quickly for the next customer. She also would like to see parking tickets for first-time offenders reduced from $40 to $20.

“You have a ton of young people down here, service industry people, college students, and that $40 ticket is a big hit to them,” she said. “And then you only have 10 days to pay it before it goes to $80. So they should lower the price of the tickets to something more affordable.”

MORE YOU SHOULD KNOW

The enforcer: Downtown Columbus parking is enforced by the city’s Department of Transportation, which also managed the METRA transit system

The official rules: Parking ordinances can be found at https://library.municode.com/ga/columbus/

Know your zone: The 2-hour and 4-hour parking zones are in force 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday, but not on weekends

What it will cost you: First time violations for expired parking is $40, which doubles to $80 if not paid within 10 days

Parking garages: The RiverCenter garage at 919 Broadway has 685 spaces, while the Bay Avenue garage at the corner of Front Avenue and 12th Street has 769 spaces and costs $2 to park all day. A third city garage at 1028 Front Ave. has 535 spaces, with the first floor free to the public, and there is the 9th Street parking lot adjacent to the Government Center with 125 spaces, also with a charge of $2.

More information: Details on downtown enforcement zones, including a map of the zones, can be found at https://www.columbusga.gov/metra/prkManage.htm

Vital tip: To avoid receiving a ticket in a parking zone downtown, vehicles must be moved across the street or around the corner. Simply moving a vehicle a few spaces away from its current spot keeps the vehicle in its current time allocation and eligible for a ticket once that 2-hour or 4-hour limit expires

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