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City of Dunedin tackles downtown parking issues
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Dunedin city officials hope to create parking turnover downtown.
The downtown parking problem is arguably the most controversial and complex planning issue city of Dunedin officials have addressed in the past decade.

This is a report on actions taken by city officials in recent months regarding concerns about a shortage of downtown parking.

Numerous residents, visitors, a former mayor, business owners and others have spoken out on various options as city officials move closer to establishing a parking management system.

On Jan. 7, city commissioners essentially gave staff the go-ahead to proceed with plans for free and paid parking areas. They took action after nearly four hours of discussion that night.

Mayor Julie Ward Bujalski was the lone dissenter on the issue of seeking requests for proposals for paid parking stations, preferring to approach paid parking in phases and allowing another year to address the public’s concerns about the parking system. Her comments that evening framed the level of interest on parking plans.

“Something that truly stands out to me though is the sheer number of residents not only here tonight but that we have heard from on this issue and their passion and tenacity. In my 10 years being with the city I have never seen an issue this highly addressed, and we have had some great big ones. So I believe we need to take that really heavily into account,” Ward Bujalski said.

Doing nothing – not an option

City officials have discussed reports from committees and consultants over the years that delved into parking problems and offered solutions.

In 2009, for example, Base Consultants of Orlando recommended that the city consider adding a parking garage in the near future and consider charging $5 per day for parking in the lots closest to Main Street. Sixty-four percent of the 334 respondents in a survey said that more parking is required downtown.

Besides Base Consultants, Walker Parking Consultants of Tampa also identified a shortage of downtown parking.

The downtown-parking deficit has been estimated to be between 350 to 400 spaces. More than 50 percent of the downtown parking supply is considered at risk due to potential development, city officials said in a June report.

Commissioners discussed staff options with and without paid parking spaces for about three hours at a meeting in June. Discussion continued in September and commissioners voted 3-2 in favor of an option that includes free and paid parking areas.

On several occasions, city commissioners said that doing nothing is not an option. They and staff repeatedly emphasized the need to create parking turnover downtown and create a revenue stream for another garage and other improvements.

As staff prepared its recommendations for the September meeting, city Economic Development and Housing Director Bob Ironsmith noted in an interview with the Dunedin Beacon the difficulty of coming up with a parking management system.

“I’ve been here 20 years, and I have said it publicly to different people. This the most complicated deal that I have worked on,” Ironsmith said. “There are so many nuances to consider I’m trying to find a balance.”

Commission OKs plans for parking system

Former City Manager Rob DiSpirito said in a memo Dec. 21 that the city leases a variety of scattered surface parking lots to increase the supply of free parking, a short-term solution. The larger vacant land parcels capable of sustaining a vertical parking garage are being lost to private development at an alarming rate, he said, “and time is running out.”

Based on direction from the City Commission at its September meeting staff presented plans for a parking management system Jan. 7.

During a four-hour discussion, commissioners authorized staff at that meeting to proceed with a pilot plan for free and paid parking areas to address the shrinking amount of parking spaces downtown.

The commission’s decisions followed arguments made by many residents opposed to paid parking, such as that it creates another tax and hurts the downtown ambiance. A few residents called for a referendum on the issue of paid parking. Proponents reiterated the need to create a revenue stream and parking turnover.

Commissioner Heather Gracy said the decision was the best commissioners could make to enhance quality of life for residents and be efficient with tax dollars.

“I know parking meters – dirty word – I don’t want to do it. But given all the information that I’ve studied since I’ve been elected to this commission, I for a long time knew it was coming, knew it was coming. When are we going to do it? If this is the commission that does it, good for us. It is a hard decision. It is a complex one.”

In a series of motions, commissioners approved a conceptual map showing paid and free parking areas that will be included in a request for a proposal for a pay station vendor and paid-parking ordinance.

Commissioners authorized staff to pursue the use of $2.9 million in proceeds from the BP Deepwater Horizon oil settlement in a plan to lease and maintain 215 public parking spaces in conjunction with a proposed mixed-use development at 940 and 996 Douglas Avenue that includes a parking garage. That will result in 100 additional spaces.

They also authorized staff to prepare a draft of a request for proposals for pay stations downtown.

City officials plan to seek bids in the early spring for the stations, which would be leased, with a proposed operational date for the pilot paid parking to begin Oct. 1.

Commissioner John Tornga said the Downtown Parking Committee and other groups spent hours on parking issues.

“We did talk that we wish to secure adequate parking for this area. We’re losing it,” Tornga said. “We know that. We know we have to pay for it. Someone has to pay for it. And we already defined who that is going to be. In this particular case it’s going to be the user. We’re not going to be doing additional taxes, etc.”

Commissioner Deborah Kynes said that change is difficult.

“It’s hard, it’s painful. But vision is imperative,” she said. “Vision has been an integral part of Dunedin’s history, and it will continue to make us who we are. It’s vision,” she said.

Commissioner Bruce Livingston said he appreciated both sides of the arguments but the commission had to make decisions based on fact. He said city officials have been talking about the issue for 10 years.

“I think it’s time to take action. … I think going forward and what we heard with this parking plan is it’s a fluid document. I think you have heard everybody say that this is going to be an alive plan and it will evolve over time,” Livingston said. “I think eventually, we are going to get where we need to be.”

He said the initiative brought to the commission on Sept. 17 regarding the partnership on the Douglas Avenue site is a good interim step but doesn’t solve the problem.

Paid parking, he said, helps the city establish firm revenue in terms of expenses and allows them to bond against and leverage debt.

Several residents, carrying signs along Main Street, protested Jan. 7 against the proposed paid element of the plan.

City staff outlined several components of the proposed parking management system, such as wayfinding, communication, paid/free areas and enforcement.

The overall annual cost of managing the system is pegged at $466,746. The hybrid parking plan map shows both free and paid parking areas.

Ironsmith, contacted before the meeting, said that the paid area represents 56 percent of the total parking supply.

“People have the ability to park for free in 44 percent of the spaces. I think that’s pretty good,” he said.

Enforcement provided by the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office is estimated to cost $35,000 in the first year for equipment and about $82,000 annually for two full time employees.

Dunedin Planning and Development Director Greg Rice pointed to an electronic map that showed land use downtown. If the land had properly-located parking structures, all of it could become developed and enhance the viability and ambiance of downtown, he said.

“Right now I challenge you to drive by these parking lots, most of them in dirt, and tell me that’s a good use of that land,” he said.

Yeas and nays

That night, Jan. 7, residents, a former mayor, the president of the Dunedin chamber of Commerce and others addressed the City Commission on parking issues.

Gregory Brady, president of the Downtown Dunedin Merchants Association and chairman of the parking committee, said he has lived in Dunedin for about 40 years and has owned a business for more than 20 years at the same location.

Studies show the city needs a revenue stream to build a parking garage, he said. That would be an addition to the garage on Douglas Avenue.

“All we want for our customers and tourists is to be able to park. You have employees parking on the street. You have trail users parking on the street. Trolley users parking on the streets all day long,” Brady said.

Also speaking in favor of the plan was Lynn Wargo, Dunedin Chamber of Commerce president, who said efforts are being made to develop a plan that suits as many people as possible.

Additional parking through the parking garage is a step in the right direction, “but we see that the loss of the other parking from the other projects is creating a lot of consternation and that the other lots are very vulnerable,” Wargo said.

With the new developments, such as Victoria Place and the Gateway site, “we’re entering into that place we all knew we were going to be a few years ago. And we knew we were going to be losing a lot of the parking that we do depend on a daily basis,” Wargo said.

Among those who spoke out against the paid parking proposal was former Dunedin Mayor Manny Koutsourais, a 50-year resident of Dunedin.

He encouraged commissioners to do a study on building a second parking garage and issuing bonds to finance it, adding that then the city could justify paid parking.

“Is it wrong to implement paid parking? I think at this time I believe it is. There’s no question that parking should be addressed, and had the City Commission in late ’80s and early 1990s knew what was going to happen in the downtown area, I can assure you, it would have been addressed,” Koutsourais said.

He said commissioners’ responsibilities do not start and stop with special interest groups.

“Your responsibility is for the overall benefit of all the citizens in the city of Dunedin,” he said.

Dunedin resident Gennaro Diana said he comes to downtown on any given night.

The majority of residents don’t want to pay for parking on top of an additional increase in property taxes approved in September, he said, suggesting that issue be a referendum in the next election.

“We have concerns. How did Dunedin get into this parking mess in the first place?” Diana asked.

Joe Kokolakis, the developer of the mixed-use project on Douglas Avenue and a resident of Dunedin, said paid parking is necessary and inevitable in the city.

He said he finds it unusual that many residents are speaking against parking stations downtown and that they feel they would prefer to subsidize the parking downtown with their taxes.

“But overall I think it’s remarkable that the commission is progressive in even considering this,” Kokolakis said.

Dunedin resident Cathy Greenwood questioned in a statement why the commission should be in a hurry to establish paid parking.

Tax revenues will increase, she said, from rising property values and from the millage rate increased approved by the commission in September. More revenues will be generated from current developments in progress, Greenwood said.

She said that the city manager and staff offered “terrific plans with no paid parking required” and that parking meters should be the last step in the program.

Other concerns and issues

Staff and commissioners have discussed several other issues pertaining to plans for paid parking.

• In memos pertaining to an option for free and paid parking areas that was unveiled to commissioners in June, staff said that a resident discount program could be created for possible inclusion in the parking management plan.

Staff said there are many options that can be made available to residents in a paid parking management plan to recognize that residents are currently paying taxes to the city and could be treated differently than a visitor or tourist to the downtown.

The residents’ discount continues to be discussed. Commissioner Heather Gracy brought the issue up at the Jan. 7 discussion.

In a conversation Jan. 18, Gracy said she thinks there is still a lot more to talk about on residents’ discounts.

“I think the commission should have the opportunity to examine what a resident discount plan might look like. My understanding is there is that there is nothing to discount yet because that rate structure hasn’t been set up,” Gracy said.

As she traveled through the community trying to explain to residents how the system works, she heard complaints that they will be paying for the parking plan twice – through their taxes and then for specific spaces.

“As so I think there is some misunderstandings of whose paying and where. That needs to get sorted out,” Gracy said. “As we sort that out, I would like to be able to look at what our Walker Consultants said to us in the study: ‘You might want to consider a resident discount in order to get the buy in of your community.’”

Mayor Ward Bujalski said Jan. 19 she strongly believes there should be residents’ discounts in the system.

“From a policy setting standpoint, I’m not worried about what the numbers say. We’ve proven that we can accomplish what we set out to do thus far without paid parking,” she said. “So I think that paid parking is simply for future parking acquisition. And I think no matter what the numbers say, it’s just the right thing to do to offer some type of Dunedin resident parking program.”

Gracy also said that parking areas for residents who live around the downtown district need to be protected as well, such as possibly through decals.

• A city staff team held regular meetings to determine the issues with existing parking signage and to implement a plan to make it easier to find parking areas. An inventory of signage along Main Street was taken that showed deficiencies in the downtown’s wayfinding system.

A three-pronged signage plan is being formed that would involve designing decorative signage, directional signage and pavement signage to include artistic design elements.

The next steps are to retain a consultant to develop a wayfinding signage system and to prepare construction drawings.

• Leases for two new additional parking lots resulting in 126 new spaces were approved this month. Dunedin Mease Hospital has agreed to make their 200-space parking lot of Virginia Street available for downtown special events at no charge to the city.

Action taken by commissioners Jan. 7 isn’t the last say they will have on the components of the parking management system, but they appear committed to moving forward with key staffs recommendations they voted to accept.

“We are in a position we have to make a responsible decision about this parking,” Tornga said. “We can’t wait much longer. I don’t think we have the luxury. … If we lose one more major spot in the city of Dunedin, we will really, really seriously feel this, and we will not hear that this is delightful downtown Dunedin any more.

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