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2nd Street gets another five years of free parking

Friday, November 10, 2017 by Jack Craver

For at least another five years, patrons of businesses located in the downtown Second Street District will continue getting two hours of free parking in the City Hall parking garage.

After a lengthy debate Thursday, City Council voted to renew a parking deal that the city originally struck in 2005 with AMLI and UP Schneider, the owners of the properties that include dozens of small, local businesses.

The vote came after an attempt by Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo to scale back the commitment to two years. Tovo has cast doubt on whether the city should be subsidizing parking for merchants.

Tovo proposed keeping the existing deals for a shorter period of time in the hopes of considering potential changes, such as offering more parking to store employees but scaling back the deal available to customers.

She highlighted that of the roughly $250,000 that the city was missing out on due to the parking deals, most of it was going to a handful of businesses whose patrons make the most use of the garages. Over the past year, for instance, Milk and Honey spa validated parking for more than 10,000 customers at a value of $88,300. Other top validators were Lamberts ($37,511), DEN Property Group ($45,597), Austin Java ($42,113) and Which Wich Superior Sandwiches ($35,202).

Tovo also highlighted inconsistencies in parking policy. The city has a similar deal with businesses in the next-door Seaholm District, but it’s not quite as generous. And the city only offers 30 minutes of free parking to those visiting the new library, she noted.

Pushback from the Economic Development Department and pleas from Second Street business owners who said their livelihoods depended on the deal convinced most of Tovo’s colleagues to stay the course.

“It is paramount to our business success,” said Elizabeth Gibson, the owner of Eliza Page, a Second Street jewelry shop that validated over $1,000 of parking over the past year.

Other business owners echoed Gibson’s comments, saying that people are not willing to pay for parking to patronize stores where they’re unlikely to spend more than $20.

Mayor Steve Adler, whose condo in the W Hotel overlooks many of the businesses in play, worried that anything less than a long-term commitment to the existing parking arrangement could jeopardize the future of the Second Street District, which he described as a major cultural and economic achievement. He also cast doubt on whether Council should differentiate between those that made great use of the parking and those that do not.

“The ones that use a lot of parking are a lot of times the anchors that drive everybody down there,” leading to more business at neighboring stores, he said.

Council Member Ellen Troxclair said that as a resident of a suburban area in Southwest Austin, the availability of parking is a dealbreaker when she’s deciding where to shop.

“I’m much more likely to go somewhere that offers street parking or validated parking,” she said.

Council Member Delia Garza, a staunch supporter of public transit, nevertheless concurred.

“The only reason I have frequented any of these businesses is because I get to park (at City Hall),” she said.

Council Member Greg Casar said that supporting local businesses was a noble goal that he wanted the city to remain committed to, but suggested the city seek other ways to help local businesses and their employees besides subsidizing parking. Subsidies, he said, should encourage a behavior the city wants to promote. Parking subsidies, he said, encourage more people to drive into an already-congested downtown.

Tovo stressed that she didn’t want to remove city support from the Second Street District, but that she wanted a more “consistent parking strategy” downtown. However, recognizing that the dais was against her, she conceded defeat on the length of the parking deal, instead offering an amendment asking city staff to come back with a report in two years detailing possible alternatives to the status quo.

The votes to extend the two deals – one with AMLI and one with UP Schneider – were unanimous, with even Tovo and Casar in support.

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

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