ST. PETERSBURG — After a revitalization effort that has produced a booming downtown atmosphere, city officials are now faced with a new dilemma — where's everybody supposed to park?
At the end of the summer, the city will commission a $145,000 parking study to find an answer.
"It's to take stock of where we are now and where we need to be in the future," said Evan Mory, director of the city's transportation and parking management department.
The study will determine if the city needs to build a new parking garage and, if so, where. On any given day, downtown visitors battle for metered or two-hour parking spots on the street, leaving city-owned garages and lots in the Waterfront District fairly roomy. Meanwhile, visitors to restaurants and shops in the Edge District have significantly fewer parking options.
"A lot of these businesses have suffered when they aren't able to accommodate their customers' needs," said John Warren, who owns the building on Central Avenue where Ricky P's Orleans Bistro is located.
That area, west of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street N, is one spot the study will focus on, Mory said.
Funded by a $3 million parking budget surplus, the project will go up for bid to several parking consultants, meaning the final price tag could come in below the $145,000 maximum estimate.
At an operating budget workshop in May, Mory had to convince several City Council members, including council member Karl Nurse, that the study was worth the money.
Nurse expressed concerns about the cost of hiring an outside consultant at a time when areas he holds dear — arts and economic development programs — are being slashed.
By the end, though, he was on board.
"They convinced me that doing this study will tell us, 'Do we need to build another parking garage and where might we build it?' " Nurse said.
Additionally, in order to get the bank's approval to finance a garage through bonds, the city must prove a professional consultant has deemed the addition necessary.
It costs $20,000 per parking space to build a garage, Mory said, making the investment in a study a "worthwhile expense."
But talk of building another garage has some asking: Are visitors even using the current ones?
The city's two garages — Sundial/Midcore on First Avenue N and South Core on Central Avenue — aren't overly busy right now, Mory said, but that's because their nearby attractions aren't yet open for business.
The Sundial shopping center, near the Midcore garage, is expected to draw regular shoppers who need parking once it opens and the first floor of the South Core garage, a commercial space, currently sits empty. Once it's occupied, though, Mory expects usage to increase.
Some downtown patrons, Mory said, would rather circle the block for 10 minutes in search of a metered spot than park in an empty garage up the street.
"Human nature is that you want to park in front of your final destination," he said.
Some of the worst offenders are downtown business employees, said Matt Shapiro, co-owner of Shapiro's Gallery and president of the Downtown Business Association. The association is encouraging downtown businesses to urge their employees to park in the garages and leave the street spaces for customers.
Mory said his department has asked for $400,000 in the proposed 2015 budget for downtown directional and wayfinding signs to guide visitors to parking garages, restaurants and shops, an effort Shapiro has been advocating for.
"I think the fear might be not knowing exactly where the shops are relative to the parking garages," Shapiro said. "For some reason, Floridians are afraid of parking garages."
Katie Mettler can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8913. Follow her on Twitter @kemettler.