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Parking roulette

Some people will do anything for a latte.

Mike Manigault and Raymond Deloach see it virtually every morning. The two friends meet for coffee at Starbucks in downtown St. Petersburg and watch a parking circus unfold before them. Cars circle the block looking for a slot. They double-park. They leave their cars in red zones.

"We see people breaking every rule imaginable," said Deloach, 39, a real estate investor. "We even see the police parking illegally to get coffee."

It's not just the need for caffeine. The evidence is there, both anecdotally and in thick, expensive consulting reports. Finding an on-street parking space in parts of downtown St. Petersburg has evolved into a formidable urban challenge.

What a change a decade can make. Vyrle Davis, 66, a retired school administrator, remembers when the downtown was a ghost town. During a recent lunch hour, he felt fortunate to find a space on Central Avenue for his Toyota Land Cruiser.

"I've seen people ride around the block for 15 or 20 minutes," he said as he walked across the street to have lunch at Jo Jo's in Citta.

Those who study city parking say it has come to this in the last couple of years as more condos have been built and downtown businesses, particularly those in BayWalk, have opened.

"In the three years that I've been here, I've never seen an instance of double-parking until recently," said Phil Oropesa, city parking manager. "That's where we're getting to."

A recent consulting study showed that parking demand exceeded supply in 24 of 135 downtown blocks. But it is those core blocks that forge the impression of city on-street parking, according to the study.

Further proof can be found in the number of residential parking permits issued by the city so downtown residents can park in specific zones. Residential permits went from 228 in 2000 to 415 in 2001.

And parking is likely to worsen as several new downtown projects, both commercial and residential, open.

Discussions of parking with city officials almost always lead to the M-word. That would be meters, as in the quarter-eating mechanical beasts that have proved to be politically unpopular.

The city introduced solar-powered, French-made parking meters in 1998 that caused much civic angst as people struggled to figure out how to use them. They lasted less than a year. Earlier this year, the city talked about reintroducing parking meters downtown, an idea that was roundly thrashed.

Nevertheless, Earl Cooley, city parking enforcement coordinator, said he believes meters will solve "90 percent" of the parking problem. That's because downtown office workers are clearly using free on-street parking instead of renting monthly spaces in a lot or a garage.

They'll do whatever it takes, he said, to beat the city's parking enforcement system. His staff has seen people rolling their cars back slightly to cover chalk marks designed to measure how long a car has been in a space. They use spray bottles to remove chalk marks. They get security guards to sound an alert when parking enforcement is coming around to give out tickets.

"It's a game," Cooley said. "And people get very, very upset when they get caught."

Both Cooley and Oropesa acknowledged that downtown workers making $7 to $10 an hour can ill afford to pay $40 a month for off-street parking. But private business is not going to step in and create cheaper off-street parking, perhaps on the edge of downtown, until there is a need for it.

In the meantime, downtown workers parking on the street have left those who want a cup of coffee or a Cuban sandwich with few alternatives. Increasingly, they are playing parking roulette. They're squeezing into spots that aren't legal, parking in loading zones and in front of fire hydrants.

It's a game that can get expensive. A no-parking zone ticket carries a $30 fine; overtime parking is $17.50 and double-parking costs $34.

The city collected slightly more than $1-million in parking fines for each of the last two years, though the total declined slightly in fiscal year 2002, Cooley said. He attributed the drop to motorists being better versed in city parking rules, and knowing how to avoid tickets.

During big events, such as the recent Ribfest that consumed downtown spaces, parking enforcement officers won't give tickets for overtime parking in areas close to the event, Cooley said. Instead, they'll focus their energies on red zone violations, which include parking in forbidden zones or in handicapped spaces.

But enforcement is strict during business hours on weekdays, he said. How tough is it to find an on-street parking space during business hours?

"It's incredibly hard," said Gale Moore, 33, a lawyer who was able to nab a space on Central Avenue in time to get to a mediation session. "I usually count on an extra 15 minutes to find a place to park."

Sean Merritt, assistant manager at Fortunato's at 259 Central Ave., said he doesn't see change any time soon. He has watched the parking fight get ever more heated in the three years he has worked there.

"It's by the grace of God to get a spot," said Merritt, 38. "If we see one, we'll run out and stand in it so we can load our cars for deliveries. People get mad at you. But we've got to make a living. It's very much a problem down here."

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