Scuttlebiz: Is 2018 the year Augusta tackles downtown parking problem?

Downtown Augusta has 14,772 parking spots. Give or take a few.

 

Whatever the exact number is, it is insufficient for the urban core’s current needs and wholly inadequate for future growth. Note the steady influx of new offices, hotels, arts and entertainment venues, restaurants and apartments in just the past few years.

Those are all places where people might want or need to park a car.

Aside from the smattering of buildings in derelict condition, the paucity of parking is the central business district’s most glaring problem. One only needs to venture out during peak business hours, special events or a simple lunch break to see downtown’s infrastructural Achilles heel on display.

Consider the shiny new Hull McKnight Georgia Cyber Innovation and Training Center. The facility that promises to make Augusta the Peach State’s epicenter for all-things-cyber will essentially sit unoccupied for weeks after completion because there won’t be anywhere for people to park. Apparently, the city-funded $16 million parking deck hasn’t kept pace with the nearly $100 million state-of-the-art facility.

It’s hard to look high-tech when you struggle with low-tech problems.

If that’s unfair criticism – and it could be, considering the Georgia Technology Authority is in charge of all construction on the 330,000-square-foot project that was pitched at us at Nolan Ryan-like speed – then what can be said about the Unisys’ service center in the Port Royal Building? The company moved here three years ago, but the city's economic development agency, the Development Authority of Richmond County, is just now getting around to providing spaces for the 700 employees the company has committed to hiring. 

If there was such as thing as a “parking chicken,” it would definitely be roosting in Augusta.

No matter how you count, recount or reclassify our parking inventory, additional spaces will have to be developed. Especially once the number of spaces on Broad Street falls anywhere from 50 to 100 under the Transportation Investment Act-funded downtown streetscape proposals, which aim to make the central business district more pedestrian- and visitor-friendly.

Augusta also is well overdue for something – anything – resembling a parking management and enforcement plan. A change in parking culture wouldn’t hurt, either.

Honestly, in what other mid-sized American downtown can one have the expectation to quickly find a spot? Right on the street? At any time? For as long as you like? For free?

Augusta’s posted two-hour limit is a joke, and most everyone knows it. That’s why more than half of the $20 parking tickets (on the rare occasion they get written) wind up in the garbage.

Parking enforcement zones, parking permits and metered parking – yes, actual pay-by-the-hour parking – is an inevitability in Augusta. If we want to be a “real” downtown, we have to start acting like one.

Downtown business owners concerned parking enforcement will drive customers away should be more concerned about lax enforcement, which enables large numbers of non-customers – including Plant Vogtle and Savannah River Site carpoolers – to treat Broad Street like their personal commuter lot. Just because a vehicle spends a lot of time downtown doesn’t mean the owner is.

One study estimated that as many as 40 percent of Broad Street spots were occupied by all-day parkers, a segment that, ironically, includes people working at the very businesses that complain about parking.

Margaret Woodard, executive director of the Downtown Development Authority, told me a story several months ago about a Columbia, S.C., restaurateur who came to Broad Street to scout potential locations for his upscale restaurant concept.

He was interested until he noticed people parking with impunity all day in front of commercial properties. Then he got back in his own car and headed east on Interstate 20.

Parking is not “fun” to develop. Aside from sewage lines, parking is probably the least sexy infrastructure investment there is. And it’s not cheap, either. Building a surface lot can cost around $4,000 per space. Multiply that rate by five and you can have a parking deck; seven for a subterranean parking garage.

But how much more expensive will spaces be in 10 years, when downtown Augusta’s parking problem actually hinders economic development? Who wants to “live, work and play” in a place where they can’t park a car?

Yes, future downtown dwellers will probably have fewer cars. But probably not as few as you think. Most people who say they want “walkable” neighborhoods usually also want the ability to hop into a car at a moment’s notice. Uber and Lyft can’t meet every ground transportation need, nor can Augusta’s bus system.

As much as the urban elite might like to write the automobile’s obituary, I don’t believe our love affair with cars is going to end anytime soon. (There are 270 million registered automobiles in the U.S. – 1.2 cars for every licensed driver.)

People do want to live, work and play downtown. But they also want their cars and places to park them. If fostering growth in the urban core is a priority, then city leaders owe the public a serious discussion on the topic. Mayor Hardie Davis recently told me this is the year that discussion will occur.

That’s good, because it’s been a long time since there was anything resembling public discourse on downtown parking. Three years, in fact.

Two public hearings were held in Dec. 2014. People showed up, concerns were voiced, heads nodded and notes were taken. Later, city officials were presented seven parking-management options from which to choose.

No. 7 on the list said just two words: “Do nothing.”

Guess which option was selected?

 

I’LL DECK YA: Few cities seem as parking deck-averse as Augusta. I partly attribute that to the poor timing of the city-built parking deck at Ninth and Greene Streets. The two-level deck was constructed in 1975 to make up for the spaces removed during Broad Street’s makeover by famed architect I.M. Pei.

The deck was rarely used and by 1978 became altogether obsolete when Augusta’s two malls – Augusta Mall and Regency Mall – ground traditional retail to a halt downtown.

The underutilized deck spent most of the 80s and 90s as a convenient trope for anyone wanting to ridicule additional public investment in downtown.

These days, however, the downtown deck is filled every weekday by the employees of the Richmond County Board of Education, whose Broad Street offices were once the Davison’s and H.L. Green department stores.

I’ll bet the only regret the city has for that deck today is that it wasn’t built a few levels higher.

 

SPEAKING OF THE MALL: It’s hard to believe Augusta Mall turns 40 this year. I don’t think it looks a day over 20, which is actually quite a compliment considering it was designed during the era that gave us Jimmy Carter, the Village People and Lawn Darts.

While interviewing the mall’s 20-something manager, Amy Dalton, I learned the shopping center’s oldest tenant, Mori Luggage & Gifts, has left the building.

Mori was there when the mall first opened. The Atlanta-based company, founded in 1906 by George Mori, still operates about two dozen stores in Georgia and neighboring states. The high-end luggage and travel accessory retailer is run by Mori’s grandson, John.

Its departure leaves the poultry-pushing Chick-fil-A, the diet-wrecking Great American Cookie Co. and the bawdy boutique Spencer’s as the mall’s longest-lived tenants. The mall’s newest business is Edge, a regional women’s clothing and accessories store.

 

MEANWHILE, AT THE OTHER MALL…: Some Augusta leaders want the future James Brown Arena built at the former Regency Mall site. Others leaders want the arena expanded at its current downtown site.

What the county’s taxpayers want will be determined in the form of a non-binding question on the May 22 municipal ballot.

The results of the straw poll could, at the very lest, give area residents an idea of how much longer they’ll have to endure debating a property that’s been vacant longer than it was occupied.

Choose wisely, folks. It’s your money.

 

TENANTS OF A DIFFERENT KIND: Let’s talk wealth. Economics 101 teaches us government redistributes it, retailers recirculate it, and producers of goods and services actually create it.

The good news is that 2017 was a pretty productive year for wealth creation in South Carolina. Last year it recruited 157 economic development projects, accounting for 18,455 new jobs and $5.24 billion in investment – the most since 2011.

The largest Palmetto State project, according to the South Carolina Department of Commerce, was the $620 million Volvo plant in Berkeley County that is expected to employ more than 1,900 people.

The only local announcement to crack South Carolina’s top 10 was the $100 million Adger Solar energy project in Aiken County, a project that tied for ninth place on the investment list with Dominion Energy’s solar farm in Jasper County.

The Aiken County solar field is expected to produce 74 megawatts of electricity off Edgefield Highway by 2019.

About 49 percent of last year’s investments were made by American companies and 60 percent came from companies already doing business in South Carolina.

View the full report here.

 

ANIMAL HOUSE: For those in need of doggie and kitty day-care services, Paws in Paradise is coming to Evans later this year, according to recently published construction bids.

Plans drawn up by the Augusta’s Christopher Booker & Associates architecture firm call for retrofitting the 4,500-square-foot building at 4319 Evans to Locks Road, which is behind the Evans Animal Hospital at 4317 Evans to Locks Road, into a “luxury pet resort and spa.”

You may remember the building was previously occupied by dance studio Kane & Co., which has since moved to 108 N. Belair Road.

By the way, you’ll eventually be able to walk your dog right past the veterinary clinic and boarding facility using Columbia County’s multi-use trail; bids have been awarded to extend the pedestrian/bike path from its current terminus just past Blue Ridge Drive to the Evans Towne Center park area.

That means dog walkers will be able to stroll all the way from the Savannah Rapids Pavilion to the Lady Antebellum Pavilion, the latter of which is right next to county’s dog park.

Woof, woof.

 

THE BRIDGES OF RICHMOND COUNTY: Speaking of walking and biking trails, wouldn’t it be nifty if the Fifth Street bridge was converted into a pedestrian-only path to North Augusta?

It’s not as if the 1930s-era two-lane span across the Savannah River – also known as the Jefferson Davis Memorial Bridge – is in tip-top shape. And it doesn’t do anything that bridges at 13th Street, Gordon Highway and Bobby Jones Expressway don’t already do better.

Given it’s proximity to Riverwalk Augusta and the soon-to-be-developed railroad depot property at Sixth and Reynolds streets, a pedestrian pathway just might be the bridge’s best future use. Compared to using the “sidewalk” along the busy 13th Street bridge, it certainly would make a stroll across the river a less harrowing experience.

I take no credit for the concept, which I suspect has been kicked around for a while. The thought never crossed my mind until I heard Dag Grantham, an avid bicycler and senior vice president at EdenCrete, mention it in between sessions at last month’s Development Authority of Richmond County meeting.

EdenCrete is working with the authority to build a $70 million, 250-employee plant at the Augusta Corporate Park. The plant would produce the company’s carbon nanotube cement additive, which makes concrete more durable.

 

STRONGER IS BETTER: The Georgia Department of Transportation is currently testing EdenCrete’s product in several places around Georgia, including a stretch of Interstate 20 in Augusta.

Had carbon nanotubes existed during the postwar highway construction boom, some of our bridges might be in better shape. The American Road and Transportation Builders Association’s recently issued report on Georgia bridges lists 692, or 4.6 percent, as “structurally deficient.”

Only one of the bridges is in Augusta: the tiny Windsor Spring Road bridge over Spirit Creek, which was built in 1966 and gets an average of 18,000 cars passing over it daily.

Relax: structurally deficient doesn’t equal imminent collapse. It just means you wouldn’t want an 18-wheeler towing armored personnel carriers to park on the bridge overnight.

 

THE SKYWAY HIGHWAY: This past week Augusta lost one of its old-school titans of industry, William T. Gary III, the former president of Gary Concrete Products, a company whose reinforced-concrete highway bridge beams were used throughout Georgia, South Carolina and Florida.

The privately held company, which at its peak employed 250 people in Augusta, Savannah and Atlanta, was sold in 1983 to Zurn Industries of Erie, Pa.

The Augusta native graduated from Boys Catholic High and the Georgia Institute of Technology. He served two years in the Marine Corps during the Korean War before joining the family-owned business founded in 1946.

He was 87.

 

Reach Damon Cline at (706) 823-3352 or damon.cline@augustachronicle.com.

 

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