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Devil Rays parking worries neighbors

Betty Long doesn't have to imagine a thing when asked about the crowds _ and their cars _ lured to her neighborhood by baseball at Tropicana Field.

She has already seen it, and it's scary.

She recently recalled a sold-out concert at the stadium four blocks south of her 14th Street N home.

"Cars filled up the street. There were cars in front of every door, in every driveway and on every empty lot and yard. Cars were bumper to bumper in the surrounding streets, and they weren't moving," said Long, president of the Methodist Town Neighborhood Association.

For many St. Petersburg residents, big league baseball is literally coming to their neighborhood and parking itself on the street in front of their houses.

Come April, when the Tampa Bay Devil Rays begin play at Tropicana Field, upward of 15,000 cars are expected to show up on the surrounding streets. Most of them will need a place to park.

Earlier counts show that there should be enough parking spaces around downtown to meet the demand. But most of those spaces will cost money, as much as $15 for a spot near the stadium.

Not everyone is willing to pay.

That's the problem facing the residential and commercial neighborhoods that ring Tropicana Field, just west of downtown.

"We're very much concerned about parking and baseball," said Marie Stirling, president of the University Park Neighborhood Association. The area she represents is east of the stadium, sandwiched between Interstate 175 to the south and Central Avenue to the north.

"My chief concerns are for my guests and my tenants," said Stirling, who owns and operates the Bayboro Inn and Hunt Room bed and breakfast at 357 Third St. S.

In all, there are nine distinct neighborhoods around Tropicana Field that the city has identified as being vulnerable to on-street parking by baseball fans trying to avoid parking fees.

The problem is potentially so large that city traffic officials and the police have put together a plan to try to deal with it. On Wednesday, they will convene a meeting of all interested residents and start to sift through the details.

"This is going to be a roll-up-your-sleeves meeting where we will come up with an action plan that all of the neighborhoods can feel comfortable with," said Angelo Rao, St. Petersburg's director of traffic engineering. "We've got to find a way to protect the neighborhoods from traffic infiltration."

The problem is the lack of parking space to accommodate residents and fans at the same time. Without regulation, officials predict that residential streets will be clogged with the cars of visitors trying to park for free.

"We're advocating the principle of protected parking around the neighborhood areas. I think the best way to get there is probably with some form of a permitting system, and I'm prepared to pay for it and administer it," Rao said.

"We saw some of this with hockey," said Lucretia Voigt, who leads the Mirror Lake Neighborhood Association, one of the nine targeted areas.

Voigt and her family live on Lang Court. It extends south from the mid-block of Fourth Avenue N, but a steel barricade prevents vehicular traffic from entering because it's not a through street.

When the Tampa Bay Lightning played hockey at the stadium, the Voigts and their neighbors routinely watched Eighth and Dr. M.L. King (Ninth) streets gridlock with traffic. They saw people trying to find parking spaces.

"There was a driver who thought Lang Court was an alley, so he pulled in, then just hit the gas," Voigt recalled. "But there was that metal pole there. When you hit that, your car will be two cars."

For Betty Long, who lives just a few blocks away from the Voigts, safety issues take on an added dimension. She points out, for example, that two high-rise homes for the elderly and St. Anthony's Hospital are nearby.

"Ambulances are at the two towers two and three times a day. How are they going to get in and out? I'd hate to have to call 911 for an ambulance or a firetruck that couldn't reach here."

When a big event looms at Tropicana Field, "you have to get off work as quickly as you can, rush to the grocery store, then get back home as quickly as you can before it (parking) all fills up," Long said. "I've literally had to drive 10 blocks out of my way to get back into my own home."

Rao is familiar with what Long's neighborhood has experienced. He was a traffic manager in Toronto when that city first learned to cope with its stadium behemoth, Skydome, back in the late 1980s.

Parking in general is also much tighter in Toronto, Rao said, and the city has more than 65,000 restricted parking spots so residents can get first crack at the spaces in their own neighborhoods.

St. Petersburg's neighborhoods will first have to perceive a need for parking regulation, then want help before they can be helped, Rao said. Participation in the program will be voluntary and up to each neighborhood.

Depending on what the majority wants, the city could use a system of bumper stickers, decals or hanging placards placed on rear-view mirrors to denote their residential status. Then, for perhaps a couple of hours before and during a game, only cars with permits could be in a particular neighborhood.

Owners of cars lacking the right identification could face a stiff parking ticket, perhaps as much as $25, Rao said.

Commercial areas might choose parking meters to keep parking spaces open during ballgames. A two-hour meter limit, for example, would help keep fans out because games typically last about three hours.

In residential and commercial areas alike, parking patterns would remain as they are now when no games or special events are scheduled, he said.

If the neighborhoods agree to it, Sgt. Gary Robbins said, community police officers will go door to door to survey residents about their parking needs. If about 70 percent of residents see the need for regulation, then their neighborhood will be included in the program.

If you go

City police and traffic management officials will conduct a special meeting to establish their parking management program. The meeting has been scheduled for 7 p.m. Wednesday in the main auditorium of the Sunshine Center, 330 Fifth St. N. All interested residents are invited, but residents of these neighborhoods are especially encouraged to attend: Palmetto Park, Historic Kenwood, Mirror Lake, Uptown, Roser Park, Campbell Park, Methodist Town, James Clearview and University Park.

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