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Council members question free parking for Second Street stores

Thursday, October 26, 2017 by Jack Craver

Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo isn’t sure whether shoppers on Second Street should get free parking courtesy of the city of Austin anymore.

At a City Council meeting last week, Tovo questioned city staff about its recommendation that Council renew contracts with several properties that house a number of small retail businesses and restaurants on Second and Third streets, from Lamberts Downtown Barbecue to Ballet Austin and Rae Cosmetics. Under the deal, which has been in place since 2005, employees and patrons of those businesses get two hours of free parking at the City Hall parking garage as long as they get their ticket validated by a store employee.

One of the contracts is with UP Schneider, which owns the building at 401 W. Second St., where Lamberts is located. The other is with three properties owned by AMLI Residential. If approved, the contracts will last until 2022.

Renewing the deal for five years, as recommended by staff, appears to conflict with the city’s recent approach to parking downtown, Tovo told the Austin Monitor on Tuesday.

“There has been an increasing effort to charge for parking downtown,” she said. “So I just don’t know that this is really in sync with that overall philosophy.”

Tovo is skeptical that store customers need the two hours of free parking. She is far more sympathetic to the challenges downtown employees may face finding parking near their place of work, regardless of whether their job is on Second Street. But if Council wants to help workers, two hours of free parking isn’t much help, said Tovo.

“I’d rather us figure out a cost-effective solution for those employees,” she said.

As transportation staff noted during the Council meeting, there is already a program that provides cheap nighttime parking to employees who work in the entertainment or service sector. Workers who provide proof that they are gainfully employed in those industries can park between 6 p.m. and 5 a.m. at the Waller Creek Center Garage for $35 a month.

In response to Tovo’s concerns about the Second Street deal, Margaret Shaw of the Economic Development Department explained that the free parking was geared toward making the downtown retailers competitive with “suburban locations that have free, accessible, conveniently located parking.”

Shaw also noted the success of women- and minority-owned businesses on Second Street.

Council Member Jimmy Flannigan said it wasn’t a good idea for downtown businesses to adopt the suburban retail model that predominates in his suburban Northwest Austin district. Lots of people don’t find Lakeline Mall easy to access, he said.

“It is very clear to me that we can’t continue to build retail in the suburban model because it’s not affordable and accessible,” he said.

Council Member Greg Casar similarly said that the city should be trying to encourage people to get downtown by different modes of transportation. Part of making that happen, he said, is by not subsidizing parking.

Council Member Leslie Pool bemoaned the loss of the Dillo, the circulator bus that used to take people around downtown.

“I have long hoped we could have the Dillo come back,” she said.

At Tovo’s request, Council voted to postpone the matter, which it will take up again at its Nov. 9 meeting. Only Flannigan voted against the postponement.

Tovo told staff that she would like to see some numbers relating to the current parking deal, including how many patrons take advantage of it and the parking revenue the city is missing out on as a result.

“Staff does not have that information available, yet is working to address Council’s questions regarding the overall use of the City Hall garage,” Shaw told the Monitor in an email Tuesday.

Photo by Gary J. Wood made available through a Creative Commons license.

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