Free parking? |
Christine Metz

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Free parking?

Group looks at improving downtown parking issues, lowering costs for businesses

By parking close to their jobs, downtown workers could be costing area merchants $65 million annually, according to a city committee.

Preventing employees from using prime customer parking spots is one goal of a downtown parking focus group looking to improve economic vitality and pedestrian flow in Old Town Steamboat Springs.

“We obviously have major parking issues downtown,” City Councilwoman Nancy Kramer said. “Downtown employee parking takes up valuable customer parking. That has been an ongoing discussion for quite some time.”

To counteract that effect, the focus group is proposing to turn more eight-hour or unregulated parking downtown into four-hour, two-hour or 15-minute parking spaces. The group also wants to see year-round enforcement of parking regulations in the downtown area and, to encourage use of public transit and safe pedestrian flow, a stop light and bus stop added at 11th Street and Lincoln Avenue.

The parking focus group is scheduled to present its recommendations to the Steamboat Springs City Council on Tuesday night. Before coming to the council, the recommendations were approved by Main Street Steamboat, a coalition of business and civic leaders seeking to revitalize the city’s downtown shopping district.

The parking focus group was composed of Main Street members, city officials and members of a parking committee that was formed five years ago.

Parking and pedestrian circulation was one of the major problems the focus group saw plaguing downtown and threatening its vitality.

It pointed to the Mountain Town Sub-Area Plan, which stated “the issues of greatest concern in Old Town relate to circulation more than any other factor: making pedestrian circulation safer and more pleasant, vehicular circulation less intrusive and convenient parking more available.”

One of the reasons for the lack of downtown customer parking is employee parking occupying too many spaces, the focus group decided.

“This is happening all over in all kinds of towns in America. Everybody is starting to focus attention again on revitalizing the downtown area,” Main Street member Cami Bunn said. “They all face the same dilemma — the need for more parking places for customers — and the parking spaces are being taken by employees.”

When employees take up parking spaces, the customers become discouraged and shop elsewhere, Bunn said. They go to Wal-Mart, shop online or leave their shopping for trips out of town.

“New customers are not coming downtown in increasing amounts because employees are taking spaces up,” she said.

A study done in 1999 about Steamboat’s downtown parking showed that of the 2,807 parking spaces, employees used 1,800 of those spaces.

The focus group also looked at a national study that indicated that for every prime parking spot an employee occupied, downtown merchants could lose between $150 and $300. The focus group calculated that at 240 days, with a loss of $150 a day and 1,800 spaces used as employee parking, downtown merchants could be facing a $65 million loss in revenue a year.

A chief element in the group’s plan to counteract that estimated loss is reducing the number of places that employees can park for a full eight-hour shift without being ticketed.

The group’s proposal calls for 68 eight-hour spaces, mostly along Yampa Avenue, to be converted to shorter-term parking. Thirty-four would be used as two-hour parking, 19 would be turned into four-hour parking, 10 would be turned into 15-minute parking at the U.S. Post Office and five would be used as emergency vehicle parking spots in front of the city’s public safety building.

The second part of the approach is to hire a year-round parking enforcement officer. In 2003, the city hired parking enforcement officers for the winter and summer seasons. But by not having enforcement in the shoulder season, the focus group thought that locals got out of the habit of following parking regulations.

“What happens because parking is not enforced year round, the employees figure that out. It is a dysfunctional situation,” Bunn said. “When the rules only apply half of the time, you don’t know what is right and wrong.”

A full-time parking attendant would cost the city $45,500 annually, including the employee’s benefit package. Right now the city spends $17,000 on a winter and summer parking attendant.

The focus group estimated that a year-round parking attendant would bring in an additional $13,200 in revenue through parking-violation fines, which would offset the added expense to the city.

The parking group members realize the proposed parking changes will force employees to walk farther from their vehicles to work.

“One of the things that we know in the downtown today, there is adequate parking. It may be farther away from people and places of business than they would like,” city Transportation Director George Krawzoff said. “There is enough eight-hour parking, you just might have to walk a block.”

The downtown still will have 336 eight-hour or longer parking spaces, though most are a block or two away from Lincoln Avenue and the center of downtown.

The focus group also points out that plenty of parking exists if employees are willing to ride the bus or walk more than one or two blocks.

The Howeslen Hill parking area, which connects to downtown by the Ninth Street Bridge, has 444 parking spaces. Some long-term parking also exists near and on Oak Street, though Krawzoff said it might draw complaints from residents in those areas.

The city also has 145 parking spaces at the Stock Bridge Transit Center. Buses run between the center and downtown every 10 minutes in the winter and every 20 minutes in the summer.

Eventually, the city should build a parking area on the east side of downtown and along U.S. Highway 40, Bunn said, to accommodate workers coming in from the mountain area.

The city also should look at having a continual shuttle between the parking areas and the downtown areas, Bunn said.

Krawzoff acknowledged the disconnect between establishing a parking program that essentially asks employees to use the bus more and, in the past three years, recommending to the council that the city reduce bus services.

He said it is a chicken-and-egg issue: Which should come first, having more people riding transit or providing more transit for people to ride?

“We are asking people to use public transit. At the same time, we are cutting services to meet the budget,” Krawzoff said. “I don’t have an easy answer to that.”

All drivers, not just those who work downtown, would be affected by the focus group’s recommendation of adding a traffic light to Lincoln Avenue at 11th Street.

Krawzoff said the discussion about the traffic light started with the Colorado Department of Transportation, which maintains Lincoln Avenue as part of U.S. 40. CDOT proposed taking out the traffic light at Eighth Street and replacing it with one at 11th Street.

The focus group strongly opposed the removal of the Eighth Street traffic light, saying it is one of the busiest and most vital corners downtown.

Instead, the focus group is asking for a new traffic light at 11th Street, which it thinks will make the bus stops more consistent, with one at every odd-numbered street.

Not having a traffic light at 11th Street means pedestrians have to cross at either Ninth or 13th streets or dash across 11th Street at an unregulated intersection.

A traffic light will make it safer and slow the flow of traffic, Bunn said.

“It will really make it much more pedestrian-friendly,” she said.

Bunn said the proposals before City Council on Tuesday night are just the beginning steps to improve parking downtown. The focus group also has been looking at converting more eight-hour parking to shorter-term parking and extending the curbs on the street corners where the buses stop.

“It is great to finally see us moving towards getting to the recommended improvements to the Mountain Town Sub-Area plan,” Kramer said.