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Tempers flare over the future of South Congress

Thursday, August 26, 2010 by Michael Kanin

In a heated meeting Tuesday night hosted by the city’s planning, transportation, and public works departments, residents, area merchants, and city staff seemed to agree on just one thing: That parking problems on South Congress Avenue need to be addressed. How that should happen, however, is a matter of intense debate.

 

The city’s version of the plan calls for angled back-in parking, metered spaces, and a bike lane. If area residents get their way, their homes would come with residential parking permits. Merchants have called for those permits to come with a sticker allotment for their businesses.

 

Though the designs the city presented are still early conceptions, there is already something of a time limit. Officials seem eager to use a street resurfacing for South Congress that could happen in the spring as a kicking off point for the project.

 

City officials argue that the proposed parking would both improve safety and provide for some extra spaces. The bike lane, they say, would be installed going uphill away from the Capitol to allow for the natural decrease in speed. On the opposite side of the street, the peddlers would share the road with car traffic because they would be able to travel at speed.

 

In support of the concept, Transportation Department Regulatory Manager Steve Grassfield cited a similar project along Dean Keeton Street near the University of Texas Law School. Assistant Director of Transportation Gary Schatz also noted that like efforts in other cities had proved successful.

 

“Let me share a couple of national perspectives,” he said. “Seattle’s had angle back-in parking for decades. They’ve had it in the university district, they’ve had it in very many other dense urban areas with lots of retail, lots of residential—it’s all over the city. It works. Houston has it. El Paso has it in their downtown area.”

 

“It works folks. I’m telling you that works, and communities across the country have found that it works,” he added later.

 

If the project were to move forward as proposed, it would cost $1.8 million. Roughly $1 million of that would come from a 1998 bond election and $700,000 would come from what staff described as “alternative funding sources.” Schatz said that the remaining $100,000 would be located “internally.”

 

For neighborhood residents, concerns over parking spillover continued to dominate. Tim Rotunda, president of the Bouldin Creek Neighborhood Association, told the group that his association planned to petition the city to switch its Vertical Mixed Use overlay to Residential Permit Parking. That move would restrict parking to non-residents during certain hours.

 

Rotunda told In Fact Daily that their effort would be “coming in the next couple of months.” He said that he had found widespread support for the idea at the neighborhood’s general meeting.

 

“Everybody was supportive of the idea, there was nobody that was (not),” he said.  

While retailers understand the plight of their residential neighbors, South Congress Merchants Association president Brandon Hodge said that he had hoped to be able to work out a compromise that would provide for those businesses. “We understand that they want to park in front of their homes,” he said, “but at the same time…our businesses are reliant on foot traffic.”

 

He added that he and Rotunda had gone to the city and asked for it to investigate the possibility of a residential permit parking zone that would also issue that privilege to businesses. After initially greeting the idea with open arms, Hodge says that the city became unresponsive. “It started climbing up the hierarchy…and suddenly just—this hammer came down,” he said. “They told us (that), no, it won’t work…the code wouldn’t support the change.”

 

“So you go, okay, well let’s change the code,” he continued, “and then just crickets, chirp.”

 

Still, he wasn’t wholly opposed to the city’s plan. “If I could snap my fingers, everything that they presented tonight would be implemented,” he said. “The only shift I would see, would say, yes let (Residential Permit Parking) go through, even neighborhood wide. But you have to (allow for merchants to be included).”

 

Despite all of the indoor high temperatures, Schatz saw hope for progress. “I think what I’m hearing from the community is frustration, a lack of trust…I think we as a city need to respond better,” he told In Fact Daily. “We’re hoping to do so in this project. We’re looking for something that says to the community, you know we don’t like this but we’ll put up with it, at least.

 

“I don’t expect them to parade down South Congress saying ‘yeah’ and ‘woo-hoo,’ but at least something that says to us, guys we’re willing to invest in this with you.”

 

Schatz promised his audience there would be more meetings in the future.

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