Recent changes to the city of Athens’ public parking policy have struck a nerve with some residents, but city officials say the policy changes are intended to help uptown businesses by encouraging more turnover of high-demand parking spots.

Athens City Council voted 6-1 last October to approve the policy changes. Most notably, the parking changes include certain designated parking zones, including for low-, moderate- and high-intensity parking; the implementation of short-term (20-minute) parking spaces; adjusted fees; and an expanded enforcement timeframe.

The latter is one of the issues that has raised complaints among citizens.

Parking meter enforcement, previously from 4 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday, now extends to 8 p.m. on those days (parking on Sundays and holidays remains free). 

The new rates are $1 per hour for high-intensity zones, 75 cents per hour for moderate-intensity zones, 50 cents per hour for low-intensity zones, and 25 cents per 10-minute period for short-term parking zones. 

Additionally, the newly installed “smart” parking meters allow users to pay with a credit or debit card, mobile app or coins.

In an interview last week, Lucas explained that the new fee structure is intended to encourage city residents and visitors to be more mindful of where and for how long they park.

“You set your zones for people to say, ‘hey I’m parking here for 75 cents an hour instead of here for $1 an hour,’” Lucas said in a phone interview last Tuesday. Some spaces that are hardly ever used remain cheaper, he said, while rates for the most-used spaces closer to uptown businesses have increased.

Ideally, people who need more time at the meters will “walk another block to their destination, so they don’t have to pay as much and they don’t block those high-intensity zones,” Lucas said. He noted that the new fee structure should encourage people to be “more attentive” to what they’re putting into the meters “and actually just reserve what they’re gonna use,” rather than reserve the maximum time just because it’s inexpensive.

The new system isn’t completely set up yet, however. “Essentially we’re still in install mode,” Lucas said last week. “We’re a little early in terms of the true adjustment; however our parking-enforcement officers are utilizing all the new meters that are installed.” 

People who wish to pay via mobile app must still use Park Mobile, a mobile parking app currently used by the city, which charges a 35-cent transaction fee each time a customer adds time to a meter. The company that produces the city’s new smart meters – IPS Group, headquartered in San Diego – has its own mobile app for users that, unlike Park Mobile, does not charge a service fee. Lucas said, however, that the IPS software has not yet been set up.

Additionally, the city is awaiting the appropriate poles that can hold two meters on the same pole. Currently, each of the new meters is situated on its own pole.

Although the high-, moderate- and low-intensity zones already have been designated, Lucas said those still have to be set up for enforcement, as do the 20-minute short-term spaces.

“It’s there but it’s not designated like it needs to be, so we’re still working through all of those things,” Lucas said.

The Athens NEWSsolicited citizen comments about the new parking program Tuesday, and not surprisingly (considering this took place on the paper’s contentious Facebook page), most of the comments were negative.

The comments mainly addressed the extended enforcement hours to 8 p.m.; how the new program adversely affects people who work uptown; confusion over what phone app to use; and issues related to the fact that the program is still in the process of being rolled out.

Some examples:

• “This sign (referring to accompanying photo) was posted above a meter I parked at last night on College Street at 6:45. The meter actually charges until 8 p.m. Misleading signage needs to be removed/changed.”

• “I agree with the overall sentiment that paying for parking until 8 is excessive, and I think at bare minimum parking should be free after at least 7 p.m., preferably back to 6 p.m., on Monday nights because City Council has meetings then. Residents should not have to pay for parking while doing civic engagement, which is the reason I had to park up there last night.”

• “The two-hour limit after 5 p.m. and through 8 p.m. has the very serious potential to hurt business. Park around 5, pay, go to dinner and/or happy hour and then maybe a movie or bar hop? Nope. Customers won’t move their car after two hours and then come back to said business. Not to mention, uptown competes with the restaurants and other places where there is free parking. We are truly disappointed with what is happening.

Compromise? Yes. Make it three-hour limit 5-8 p.m.”

• “If you go to a 5 o'clock movie at the Athena, you have to leave during longer movies to feed the meter.”

• This makes parking uptown really expensive for workers, and patronizing uptown businesses is deterred even more. Why isn't the Athens Uptown Business Association fighting this? I've long ago switched to a hair salon out of the uptown area. Now I find myself cringing at being rushed through dinner, movies, etc. too.”

• “I don't like making a dollar less per hour of work and have to move my vehicle every two hours when the street around Jackie O's can be a pain for workers to park on. Can we get work parking permits or something?”

• “This is a regressive revenue generating scheme that unfairly targets uptown workers. Instead, tax businesses and the rich, and cut the city's bloated police budget.”

• “Not having posted hours on the individual meters, and outdated signs, leads to a lot of confusion. They should have rolled out new pole stickers when installing them, and replaced all the signs before changing the charged hours.”

Lucas addressed most of those comments in a phone interview Wednesday morning.

The extension of parking enforcement to 8 p.m., he said, is supposed to keep cars rotating out of uptown spaces.

Lucas noted that some businesses remain open beyond 6 p.m. “What was happening is people were coming up and parking but they weren’t moving… People would come uptown to find a space (and they couldn’t). They (cars) were just stacking, making parking unavailable during the evening…"

With the later enforcement time "you’re creating the opportunity for vehicles to move around more,” Lucas said.

“If we can get people out to State Street between Lash and Stewart, or Congress Street or West Union... into those 10-hour parking zones… that’s to everyone’s benefit.”

Lucas said spaces in these low-intensity zones are typically thought of as being "too far" from uptown, "but they're not."

He added that those 10-hour parking zones also should be more convenient for uptown employees. “If I go park in a 10-hour space... I don’t have to move my car every two hours,” he said. “I’m hoping that people will understand… we’re trying to utilize parking that hasn’t been utilized before.”

Lucas said the short-term 20-minute meters will be painted green, and there is "almost one every block" located in various intensity zones. Those are not totally set up yet, however, he added. Right now, he explained, whatever zone they fall in is the rate that they’re being charged, but they will be 25 cents per 10 minutes.

Asked about the outdated street signs, Lucas said, “That’ll all be cleaned up… The goal is to have all those cleaned up before the summer’s over.”

“... We’ll have to put the new smart-meter stickers on once we’re live with that (for the IPS app)… All that stuff needs to be integrated still. Most of the meters are in.” The city is still waiting on some of the double-space meter poles, he added.

BERNHARD DEBATIN, AN OHIOUniversity professor and Athens resident, said in a phone interview June 6 that the new fee structure may further exacerbate existing inequalities.

“In my opinion, that’s the most likely effect that it’s going to have,” Debatin said. He compared the new fees to a regressive tax, like a sales tax “that hits everybody regardless of how much money they have available… 

“If they want to use it as a source of revenue, I think they should think about it in terms of social justice,” Debatin continued. “Is that really a good idea?”

According to lucas, the new fees have nothing to do with increasing city revenue, even though parking meter revenue is expected to increase according to estimates that he and Athens City Planner Paul Logue presented to City Councillast September.

The idea is to reorganize the way people park on Court Street between President Street and State Street, Lucas said last week, “moving vehicles in and out of there for customers to use.”

Specifically, Lucas said the changes aim to redirect uptown employees who would otherwise park at a meter on Court Street, then move their car when the meter is up to another metered spot, blocking spaces that could be used by customers.

“Parking meters aren’t for the fulltime or part-time worker… We want to push people into the parking garage,” Lucas said. The rate in the city parking garage has not been changed.

In connection with previously stated concerns that the city’s recommended parking alternative, the parking garage on East Washington, is unsafe, the city is currently working on a planto update the parking garage, with hopes of improving the look and navigability of the space.

Additionally, Lucas said less expensive spaces are still available near the uptown area, and city officials hope that uptown employees will park further from Court Street. “Not every space is $1 an hour,” Lucas said. “… There are spaces just off of (uptown) that are 75 cents an hour... The purpose is to fill those up.”

Debatin said he doubts the parking changes will help satisfy the city’s intentions. “It’s well meant, I understand that, but I just doubt that the intended effects will happen,” he said. “...People who can afford it will still park long, and people who can’t afford it will not... It basically deepens existing privilege.”

In response to The Athens NEWS’Facebook pitch for comments about the new parking program, Athens resident Ron Delach bucked the negative tide and praised the program. 

“I am a strong supporter of the recent and upcoming changes to on-street and garage car parking in uptown Athens,” he wrote in an email. “The city seems to be doing everything right when it comes to updating parking. The changes will improve parking in Uptown that will benefit the community and the businesses that depend on parking availability in uptown.”

Delach asserted that the city “has followed all the best urban-planning principles in designing updates to on-street parking in the city of Athens, including conducting a parking study prior to determining what updates to parking were needed.” 

He added, “Correctly regulating and pricing parking in order to promote turnover of spaces so that there are always some available is an important principle of parking management.”

Lucas, meanwhile, said that despite some criticism, most of the feedback that parking enforcement officers have received about the new parking program has been positive. 

“It’s been mostly praise,” he said. “Sure there’s been some complaint; nobody likes increased cost, especially if you’re used to parking in a certain space.” Lucas said he thinks the benefits of the recent changes will become more clear with time.

“I think the more everything gets set up, (people will) understand and they’ll see the value and, really, the need for it,” Lucas said.

The parking policy changes are based on findings from an extensive Uptown Parking Study that City Planner Logue’s office conducted as a part of the city’s Comprehensive Plan revision process. The study gleaned data througha pilot program that tested the IPS smart meters on sections of Court Street and payment kiosks in the city parking garage from February to May 2018. The study also incorporated interviews with uptown business owners, online surveys, and “parking-space-by-parking-space” counts to monitor traffic at the meters, as Logue explained during the presentation at City Council last September.

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