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Elizabeth Pagano is the editor of the Austin Monitor.
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Joint panel looks at problems with valet and free parking in Downtown
Wednesday, February 9, 2011 by Elizabeth Pagano
The joint subcommittee of the Urban Transportation and Downtown commissions met Monday afternoon in an attempt to come to some conclusions following a flood of angry survey responses. Most of the subcommittee’s discussion centered on two hot button issues in the survey: extended meter hours for on-street parking and downtown valets.
Public opinion, as gauged by the survey, was strongly critical of valet parking.
“I think the city or somebody needs to do some kind of education campaign in some form on the value of the valet parking,” said Dustin Lanier, chair of the Urban Transportation Commission. “The reality is that people get mad because they see it as an open slot, but those two or three slots allow us to park a hundred cars.”
Despite agreement on this point, the subcommittee discussed the need to reform current regulations for valets. They cited an arbitrary “six strike” rule for loss of license, the ability to retain valet spaces after businesses had closed, and the low $250 dollar fee that businesses currently pay for valet spaces as examples of things that could be changed in the future.
Urban Transportation Commission Member Richard MacKinnon emphasized the need for these changes. “I don’t think I could support the recommendation of staff if I found out or realized that the city is going to do nothing with the valet ordinance, just leave it as it is,” said MacKinnon. “The public would be very upset.”
One of the bigger changes currently upsetting the public is the extension of parking-meter hours until midnight, which would essentially eliminate free on-street parking downtown.
The subcommittee was at odds about the proposed service area for the changes, hours, and time limits on metered parking. They ultimately voted in favor of modifying the proposed service area, but retaining the extension of metering until midnight. There was also a successful push to allow for mixed time-limits on meters, so that some areas would allow parking for longer than three hours.
Respondents to the survey cited concerns about safety and a lack of viable alternative ways to get downtown as reasons for opposing proposed changes. The subcommittee acknowledged these concerns, and they may figure into the ultimate proposal to City Council. They were, however, insufficient to dissuade members from moving forward.
“I’m mostly persuaded that it’s bad public policy to build a vibrant downtown if you have too much free parking, because it shapes development, it shapes behavior, it messes up your ability to provide real mass transit,” said MacKinnon. “I think trying to hang on to free parking may be one of those small-town values that we can no longer afford.”
“To me, if we don’t do anything about this, at some point it’s just all going to be all taken up by service workers and workers downtown in the evenings,” worried Downtown Commission Member Chris Schorre. “There will be losers to this, there’s no doubt about it. To the extent that we can mitigate the effect it would have on the music industry and so forth, that does concern me.”
Some subcommittee members remained opposed to the changes in metered parking.
“I feel like when and if this gets put in place, the spots on the street will be just as full as they are today, and maybe we’ll get a few more people in the garages,” said Lanier. “My concern is that it will change the mix of who comes and uses it, and that would have an effect on what the downtown functions as.”
“You can create the availability of spaces very easily, by making downtown not attractive,” noted Michael McGill, who serves on the Downtown Commission. “That’s not success, at the end of the day.”
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