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  1. Transportation

Carlton: How not to park in downtown Tampa

Okay, so it's not quite the same as being a man without a country. But suddenly I find myself a woman without a parking space.

Except in college when I waited tables and we lowly employees were banished to the outermost edges of the mall parking lot, I have always parked where I worked. This seemed a given, like a desk chair or an office holiday party. Who knew that in a world of blooming downtowns, parking could become a luxury?

Construction cranes never seem to stop bobbing around Tampa lately, and one of the parking lots used by my office was just torn down to make way for a new apartment building. (Progress, I guess.) Interestingly, this was the lot we long referred to as "Loserville" because those assigned to it had to walk all the way across a street to get there, occasionally ducking an angry mockingbird that insisted on building a nest in a scraggly Loserville tree.

So now we park in a lot a mile away and ride a courtesy shuttle. Or we fend for ourselves in a downtown that currently boasts 8,100 residents and a workforce close to 60,000.

Oh, Loserville. Had we only known how good we had it.

Not being able to stand the thought of my car across town when I need to go, I join the platoon of downtowners who scavenge daily for a closer spot, usually finding one a half-mile or more away. The Riverwalk, once a fun waterside amenity, is my daily commute. Okay, so the view is not exactly awful.

On my walk in, Interstate 275 hums overhead. Across the river I track the rumble-and-clank progress of construction of a new park. I count gulls on light poles and know I'm halfway there when I step on a sidewalk square that says JOEL+KANDI. I don't mind the extra exercise; I dread the coming summer and, most of all, I actively dislike the half-hour it adds to my every come-and-go.

If I expected anguished hand-wringing on this from Karen Kress, director of transportation and planning at the Tampa Downtown Partnership … well, no.

"This is the new normal," she says cheerfully.

Kress is a veteran bus commuter (thumbs up on the Wi-Fi, she says) who currently carpools. She parks like I do and rides her bike up the Riverwalk to her tall office building. In recent weeks, she was rained on only once. "I saw dolphins about a week ago," she says. "I heard them coming up for a breath."

She points out that with big-city amenities can come inconveniences, and says Tampa is currently in that "awkward teenage phase." There is parking, she says. We just need to get used to it not being right outside the door.

Indeed, a map at tampasdowntown.com shows parking aplenty, including four hulking city garages and dozens of private lots and garages. Except those more affordable city garages have waiting lists, and available parking can be far flung. Our little city, growing up.

Even those of us who feel like we practically parked in Pasco have options once we're in a space. The free In-Towner Trolley cruises by, and the touristy historic streetcars now have morning commute hours. The new and free app-based Downtowner shuttle cars has ferried more than 20,000 passengers in less than two months already, with an average wait of 15 minutes.

Sounds like Kress is saying we need to learn to walk, to plan, to evolve. Fine. Some dolphins would be nice, too.

Sue Carlton can be reached at carlton@tampabay.com.

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