Public sees two sides to meters plan

As dozens of people roamed the White's Building on Broad Street at noon to see the details of a proposal to bring back parking meters, people outside the meeting were facing the problem the meters are supposed to address: finding somewhere to park.

 

"We had to loop a couple of times, but we finally found one," said Melissa Scheff, of Savannah, Ga. Ms. Scheff was visiting downtown Augusta for a business conference. She said she didn't think parking meters were a good idea for downtown, saying that searching for parking spaces is part of the downtown experience.

Cory Brooks looked for 15 minutes for a parking place, finally finding one in a median lot on Broad Street.

"Parking is definitely a problem down here," he said. "A lot of people aren't going to pay to park, though."

In the meeting -- one of two held Thursday meant to answer questions on the proposal -- the debate continued about whether the meters would draw more people downtown by giving them better access to shops or drive them away so they don't have to pay for something that's been free for 30 years.

Last week the Downtown Development Authority of Augusta proposed to meter 1,000 parking spaces on Broad Street and some of the side streets next year.

It would cost $1 million to install the meters.

Parking in those spaces would cost $1 an hour, with two- or four-hour limits between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m. weekdays.

The intent, according to the DDA, is to get more turnover of parking spaces in order to build more customer traffic. The meters would force workers and downtown residents to find other areas to park during the day.

Bryan Haltermann, an owner of downtown apartments, said he has mixed feelings about bringing back parking meters.

"I think it is going to hurt residential. I'm not sure it is the best way to help retail," he said at the public meeting. "We have very little good retail downtown, and it isn't because of parking."

He said he's sure it would turn over parking spaces on Broad, but he's concerned about the effect on residents.

"People come home from work at 5 o'clock and are going to want to park."

Dave Steele, the owner of The Window Gallery on Broad, said some of his concerns revolve around his workers. They can't afford $8 a day to park.

"If we force people to park on back streets, there's going to be burglaries, violence. These are dark back streets. I don't want the women who work for me to have to go into a dark street to retrieve their car," he said.

Mr. Steele suggested that the city wait to see what effect the 400-space parking deck for the proposed trade, exhibit and event center has on the downtown. He also suggested increased enforcement of the current rules.

Right now, parking is free for two hours, with a $20 fine for a violation.

DDA officials argue that there is lax enforcement and that the tickets have no bite.

"Enforce what's there. It doesn't have to be a deputy; it can be a different kind of employee. Have high fines and enforce it," Mr. Steele said.

Lara Plocha, the president of the downtown merchants association, said a majority of the members are unsure about the meters.

"Right off the bat, there were people immediately for it and immediately against it," she said.

She echoed Mr. Steele's sentiment about enforcement and posed the question to DDA board member Paul King.

"It generates funds to pay for the enforcement. It is a package," Mr. King replied. "The commission just cut $1 million from the sheriff's budget."

Since the proposal was made, Mr. King has gotten a lot of feedback, he said, and most of it has been negative.

"Anyone who is used to free parking on Broad Street who doesn't own a building or a store is opposed," he said. "Every study I see tells me it is good for downtown. What am I going to believe, a knee jerk reaction or science?"

The DDA said in its study that meters generate $150 to $300 per space per day to retailers.

The proposal will be finished over the next few weeks and presented to the Augusta Commission for approval in January.

Implementation would be expected after Masters Week.

"What's the plan if it doesn't work? It actually causes harm. What's Plan B?" Mr. Haltermann asked.

The meeting at 6 p.m. saw more of the same opinions voiced, with close to 30 people coming out to hear about the DDA's plan for parking meters and downtown development.

Reach Gracie Shepherd or Tim Rausch at (706) 724-0851.

THE PROPOSAL

- Spend $1 million to buy 1,000 new technology-smart parking meters for Broad Street from Fifth to 13th streets, and side streets within a block. Parking would remain free from Ellis Street south.

- Parking would cost $1 per hour from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekdays, free on weekends. On-street parking would have a 2-hour limit. Median spaces would have a 4-hour limit.

- The DDA would be in charge of enforcement and use the proceeds for beautification.

WHAT'S NEXT

The Downtown Development Authority will finish writing the rules for the Broad Street corridor parking plan and present it to the Augusta Commission in January. If approved, the DDA will need to come up with $1 million to buy the meters. Implementation would not be complete until after April.