It’s not as exciting as a new basketball arena, as entertaining as a distillery district, or as pleasant as a downtown water feature, but business owners, developers and city officials agree that parking is a crucial determining factor in the success or failure of the city’s core.
By no means is it a new problem. Downtown parking has been the subject of debate and criticism for decades. Some people hold that it is simply a problem of perception on the part of today’s driving consumers, who have been conditioned by the growing number of expansive suburban surface lots. Others see an increasingly confusing, inconsistent and inconvenient network of downtown parking options in need of a complete overhaul. All agree, however, that downtown Lexington cannot support a thriving retail sector in the long term unless it develops better parking solutions.
Debbie Long, owner of Dudley’s on Short, had some sleepless nights after she decided to move her restaurant from Dudley Square to its current location on downtown Short Street. One nagging question kept her up the most: Where were her customers going to park?
Suburban shoppers have grown accustomed to parking within view of their destinations, Long said. She was initially concerned that her diners might not be comfortable with downtown’s tucked-away private lots. But Long soon discovered that the concept of downtown parking wasn’t an inhibiting factor for her longtime patrons.
“We found that my guests really adapted easily to our downtown parking,” Long said.
According to Long, it’s not the concept of paying for parking or the short walk to the restaurant that creates a problem for her patrons. After two years in the downtown core, Long’s experiences with parking boil down to one overarching mantra: Parking should not be a complicated process.
“We’re thrilled with the growth in businesses downtown,” Long said, “but we know as retailers that we’ve got to provide customers with the best service they can have, and that starts from the minute they drive down here.”
The ticket-dispensing pay-and-display stations for on-street parking that were located outside her business, for instance, had not been as convenient for guests to use as traditional parking meters — especially in inclement weather. Payment procedures at nearby unmanned private lots were proving to be confusing and time-consuming for patrons, with inconvenient lines at payment machines during busier hours, she said.
“To me the key to an urban setting is to make the parking easy,” Long said. “There is parking available, but it has to be easy for our guests.”
In addition to being as convenient as possible, parking also needs to be easily accessible and readily apparent, according to Renee Jackson, president of the Downtown Lexington Corp.
While surface parking lots are present downtown, it can be difficult to determine which ones are available for public parking.
“There is a lot of confusion about which lots are public,” Jackson said. “Even though they may say ‘parking,’ it’s not clear if it’s just for monthly parkers or if it’s for the public.”
That kind of confusion may contribute to seemingly illogical downtown parking patterns, as shown by one experience related by Jeff Fugate, the Lexington Downtown Development Authority president.
“I came down for the Thriller Parade. It was kind of rainy that night, and they had 12,000 people in attendance. … I parked in the Transit Center Garage, which is across the street from where the festivities were occurring,” Fugate said. “I was one of 12 cars in a 700-car garage.”
He added, “That was free, by the way.”
Unpredictable pricing is a common complaint in downtown Lexington, where the rules and the costs commonly change during special events such as University of Kentucky basketball games and popular concerts. Poorly lighted parking facilities have also made some of the parking that is available less appealing for more safety-oriented consumers. But some still believe downtown’s parking problems are primarily the result of negative assumptions and lack of experience.
To encourage people to live, work and play downtown, said Ken Michul, director and executive vice president of leasing, brokerage and operations for The Webb Cos., parking must be seen as safe, predictable, accessible and affordable.
“Great strides have already been made in this regard and plans are now being implemented by both the public and private sectors to make it even better,” Michul said. “With that being said, some who don’t frequent or are not familiar with downtown still perceive downtown parking to be inconvenient, generally unavailable and expensive. As one who has worked downtown for many years and is very familiar with downtown parking, I can tell you that this simply isn’t true.”
“I think there is a perception that there is nowhere to park, that you can never find a spot,” Jackson said. “I would say that five or six years ago that was probably the truth, as far as on-street [parking] goes. But since the Parking Authority came into being in 2008, I think there is an availability of on-street.”
But while the Parking Authority has greatly improved the turnover in on-street parking that downtown businesses need to encourage patronage, its new technologies have received mixed reviews. The pay-and-display stations installed in and near downtown were intended as an added convenience for both parking patrons and enforcement staff, according to LexPark Executive Director Gary Means, but business owners in some areas, such as on Chevy Chase’s Euclid Avenue and along Short Street, have requested their removal.
“At the time [when parking rates were increasing], it was a solution to … give people the option of how to pay,” Means said. “People don’t usually have more than a quarter or two in their pocket, and so expecting people to have four quarters on them to pay for an hour was kind of a lot to ask.”
The adjustment to the pay-and-display stations has been smooth in the UK area, Means said, and the system has been popular among UK students.
“However, in downtown there’s been a lot of pushback … for a lot of reasons,” Means said. “It still has been a culture shift. We have found it is really difficult to make happen.”
Pursuing the quick fixes
There are immediate concerns that can be improved relatively easily, according to those with a vested interest in downtown parking issues. In some cases, steps are already underway to address them.
Long asked LexPark to remove the pay-and-display stations outside Dudley’s on Short and replace them with more traditional car-side meters, and the agency has already made the change. The individual meters are solar-powered, accept credit cards and also offer a pay-by-phone feature.
“LexPark heard that, and they are doing something about it,” she said. “We were thrilled that they listened to us and they responded.”
LexPark’s budget is generated solely through both parking fees and fines, which have grown substantially in recent years.
“On-street used to generate around $400,000; now it’s up to about $1.5 million [since LexPark began operations and enforcement],” Means said. “We can take some of that surplus and put it into these garages, which is what we’re doing.”
In addition to making improvements in city-owned parking garages, Means said a group of parking operators led by LexPark is now meeting regularly to discuss parking issues, and they have agreed to install universal parking signage that will feature a blue background with an encircled white letter P. Many of the new signs will also feature a tote board on the bottom to indicate the number of open spaces in the garage, he said. Private operators will also be able to incorporate the symbol with their own company name or logo.
“We have pretty much all the major owners or operators of downtown parking around the table,” Means said. “Everyone has realized we need to come up with something that tells the suburbanites and folks that aren’t used to coming downtown [to] look for this sign: it’s public parking.”
The new signage will be phased in as budgets allow, Means said. Cities such as Cincinnati have required parking lot operators to adhere to established standards for customer service, lighting levels and parking rates in order to utilize universal signage. In Lexington, Means said, the effort has been more of a ground-up approach to improving the visibility of downtown parking, and it hasn’t required any governmental ordinance. However, the group is still discussing how the new signage will be funded.
“Our big thing right now is to go after low-hanging fruit, and that is to help people find parking,” Means said. “We may take it another step and say, ‘If you see this kind of sign, it means you won’t have to pay more than a certain amount per hour.’ That’s a second phase we’ll start to look at. Right now it’s get everybody on board and get these signs started.”
In terms of better lighting in lots and garages, Benjamin Steffen, general manager for Central Parking Lexington, said that his company has been making improvements, including doubled the lighting in its lots earlier this year and changing the type of bulb used to a brighter variety.
“We’ve really taken a real hard look at what we’re doing with lighting and moved it around so it made a little more sense,” Steffen said. “[We’ve] used that brighter, cleaner, white light that just makes everything seem more inviting, but at the same time doubled it.”
LexPark has also been working with a new mobile app called ParkMe, which can communicate the rates for the parking authority’s four parking garages — and eventually the open space count — in real time.
To allow customers to avoid any lines at payment machines, Central Parking plans to have a pay-by-phone feature in place on its lots in time for the opening of Thursday Night Live, Steffen said.
According to Andrew Barlow, regional manager for Central Parking, such conveniences are quickly becoming the norm for the industry.
“Looking further into the future, more and more places are going to get away from equipment all together,” Barlow said. “You’re going to see garage systems that operate in the cloud, basically.”
Parking’s place in downtown development
From the perspective of developers and real estate professionals who operate in the downtown sector, it is difficult to overestimate the importance of parking in determining the economic potential of downtown Lexington.
“Parking is arguably the most important issue to the success of retail, office, restaurant, housing and appropriate urban planning,” said Phil Holoubek, developer of Main & Rose and the Nunn Lofts.
Holoubek cited a study conducted in Columbus, Ohio, that determined most downtown commuters would willingly walk only 800 feet to get from their parking space to their desk.
“Not to the front door of their office, but to their desk,” Holoubek said. “So you can draw a circle around any property and figure out how many parking spaces are within 600 feet of that building and then determine if there is enough supply to meet demand.”
If the available supply doesn’t meet demand, Holoubek logically concluded, then prices for parking could be expected to rise. The rising cost of available parking would make a location less cost-competitive for employers in terms of rent and the expense of office space, which could, in turn, reduce the building’s value and the resulting tax revenues.
“So, there’s a large economic impact even to the public sector when there’s not enough parking in place,” Holoubek said.