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Parking OK in downtown Palm Harbor
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The area outlined in yellow on this map from Google Earth represents the boundaries of a parking study in downtown Palm Harbor by King Engineering.
CLEARWATER – A recently completed study pretty much dispels ongoing complaints from some businesses about parking in downtown Palm Harbor.

The complaints came to the forefront during public hearings on the use of transfer development rights that would allow a local business to construct a new office building in the downtown area. Several proprietors objected, claiming Geographic Solution’s employees were parking all day in spaces that should be left free for their customers. They claimed that parking was inadequate in downtown and even hired a consultant to prove their case. They scoffed at a study done in March and April 2011 by Pinellas County’s Planning Department that showed adequate parking was available.

At a public hearing on Feb. 21, County Commissioners attempted to appease the complainers by reducing parking requirements for restaurant and retail uses. The commission also requested a parking study by an independent third party to evaluate parking needs within the downtown area.

In the interim, county staff along with the Metropolitan Planning Organization and the Florida Department of Transportation identified a need to study traffic circulation patterns and the impact of installing a traffic signal at Alternate U.S. 19 and Florida Avenue or Nebraska Avenue. Officials hired King Engineering Associates Inc. of Tampa on July 12 to conduct the parking and circulation study.

Sandra Gorman from King Engineering presented results of the parking study to County Commissioners during a Dec. 18 work session – almost 10 months after the commission requested it. Results of the circulation study were not yet available.

Gorman said King Engineering had looked at private and public parking to see if enough spaces were available for current needs as well as those projected for the future. The goal was to balance parking needs with the historical nature of the downtown district.

Study boundaries were Alt. 19 to the west; County Road 1 to the east; Michigan Avenue between Alt. 19 and 12th Street, and Georgia Avenue between 12th Street and County Road 1 to the south; and Indiana Avenue between Alt. 19 and 11th Street, the alley north of Nebraska Avenue between 11th Street and County Road 1 to the north.

Staff from King Engineering counted occupied parking spaces on Friday, July 20; and Saturday, July 21; and Tuesday, July 24, which Gorman said was not peak season. Parking surveys were taken every 15 to 20 minutes to find out when and where people were parking and how long they used a parking spot. King Engineering then conducted community meetings on Sept. 11 and Oct. 25 to take public comment.

Gorman said 642 parking spaces were accounted for with 66 percent, or 422, being public spaces and the remainder, about 34 percent, off-street private spaces. Seventy-three of the public spaces were located at White Chapel/Harbor Hall. She also said Geographic Solutions recently added 42 parking spaces that were not included in the study.

The study concluded that private parking was used the most during business hours on weekdays, as were the public spaces on 12th Street and Florida Avenue. Parking demand was highest overall on weekdays during business hours because of a combination of employee and customer use.

In the evening, parking spaces on Florida Avenue had the highest use, as well as spaces on 11th Street and Nebraska Avenue. Gorman said the evening use corresponded to areas where restaurants and bars were located.

Weekend use of private parking spaces was “significantly low.” The use of on-street public spaces on the weekend also occurred in the evening near restaurants and bars. The only time the White Chapel lot showed high usage was Saturday morning during an event. The study concluded that White Chapel parking and on-street spaces along Michigan Avenue were underutilized at all times.

Turnover of parking spaces ranged from less than an hour to nearly six hours. Short-term parking was primarily by customers with employees accounting for most of the long-term use of spaces.

“There’s a strong perception about lack of turnover but it was not observed,” Gorman said.

The study concluded that the maximum use of available parking spaces at any one time was 49 percent and the existing 642 spaces were adequate for current demands and the area’s projected future needs.

However, Gorman offered some recommendations including imposing a two-hour parking limit between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. on Florida Avenue, a very unpopular idea among Palm Harbor business owners. Another recommendation called for restricting employee parking on Florida Avenue.

The study also suggested shared parking, changes to the parking rates for office uses in some areas and promotion of underutilized parking areas via signs to help balance public versus private needs.

Gorman talked about the lack of lights on downtown streets, which could be a reason people don’t want to park far from their destination during night hours. She said the public brought up the lack of lighting at both public meetings.

“We’ve talked that to death,” Commissioner Susan Latvala said about the issue of streetlights. “They should just put up Progress Energy lights for $20 a month until they can pay for the decorative ones.”

She said the county had already budgeted for the poles.

“We’ve done everything we can,” she said.

She suggested that business owners put white lights in their trees to help with the lack of lighting until money was available to pay for streetlights.

Neil Valk thanked County Commissioners for paying for a parking study. Valk owns several properties in downtown Palm Harbor. He was a leader among those saying parking was an issue during the public hearings to allow Geographic Solutions to use TDRs and build a new headquarters building,

“I hope this puts this issue to rest,” Latvala said. “The perceived parking problem does not exist. Staff’s review has been right all along.”

Commissioners will continue to look at potential amendments to the code governing downtown parking in Palm Harbor in response to King Engineering’s recommendations. The matter should come back to the commission in March.
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