TAMPA — Downtown Tampa used to be a 9-to-5 business zone where the office towers and sidewalks emptied out at dusk, but a lot has changed over the past 15 years. There are more residents, now, as well as more parks, more big events, more nightlife and more fun.
Downtown parking, however, has not kept up with the changes and is not fun.
"The P-word," Tampa Downtown Partnership director of transportation and planning Karen Kress told about 100 downtown stakeholders Friday. Whenever the partnership talks to a group about any aspect of life downtown, parking comes up "in every single meeting no matter what the subject."
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Downtown's parking inventory is still skewed heavily toward the central business district's population of monthly parkers, and that skews the market, creates inefficiencies and leads to a patchwork of mismatches between supply and demand, according to a first-of-its-kind parking analysis from the partnership.
The study, two years in the making, finds that:
• Downtown has about 24,000 parking spaces. Of that, the city of Tampa controls the largest share — 8,000 spaces — but various private parking operators manage most of the spaces.
• The city charges less for parking than private operators do, with many on street-spaces going for $1.50 an hour, but some for as little as 25 cents per two hours. Lot and garage parking is all more expensive. That creates a preference among drivers for using the street spaces, even if nearby garages have plenty of available parking.
• At the busiest times on weekdays, some parking is heavily used, while nearby lots have plenty of vacant spaces. At peak times, an estimated 6,000 spaces remain empty. Meanwhile, the city's waiting list for city-managed parking had 4,100 names on it as of last July.
So how does this happen?
Monthly parking permits, mostly issued to downtown workers, are the dominant way access to parking has been controlled. This results in building tenants leasing more parking than they need, and that makes those spaces unavailable for other uses.
"This is not the way most cities handle it," said Joel Mann, a consultant with Stantec who worked with the partnership on the study.
In most cities, it says, parking is more "closely aligned" between public and private spaces. Here, because the market remains "highly focused" on monthly employee permits, there isn't as much parking available for people who come and go, residents, early birds and part-time downtown workers.
What's more, a 15-year freeze on city parking rates has created a "huge subsidy that private operators cannot afford to compete with," the partnership says. That limits the money they have available that could be invested in better customer service.
Finally, the city has long waiting lists for parking but no costs or controls for them. This allows savvy customers to sign up for multiple lists and block newcomers from getting parking for years, the partnership says.
To address these problems, the partnership suggests that the city reconsider its management practices to correct for price imbalances and demonstrate that there is a market for a broader range of parking options. That, in turn, should spur private operators to adjust their prices and make changes that would allow underused lots and garages to serve unmet demand.
"It's time to act now," Kress said. "We can't just sit on this anymore. I think we're kind of at that tipping point for downtown."
And it's not just parking, the study concluded. Mobility options such as transit and a "targeted focus on convenience for the end user are key parking system improvements," because they both provide travel options other than driving and expand the reach of the parking system.
"I was very impressed," said Lorrin Shepard, the chief operating officer at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts. Two years ago, the squeeze created by multi-event days and nights was aggravating some Straz patrons so much that they told the center they were considering giving up their season tickets. Since then, the center put together its own task force and now offers patrons advice on planning their visit, options to pre-pay for parking and suggestions on how to leave their car at home (Uber, the Pirate Water Taxi, the Downtowner electric shuttle).
All that has helped, Shepard said, and the downtown partnership's efforts promise to help even more.
"This is ultimately necessary to manage the pace of change that's happening here in Tampa," he said. "The good news is I think there are some very easily adopted procedures" — such as the use of apps to find, reserve and pay for parking — "that could really make a big difference."