Downtown Dunedin is entering a new phase in its evolution from a blighted, mostly vacant, dilapidated traffic corridor to the vibrant arts and entertainment district it is today. Four major development projects (Victoria Place, Highland Town Homes, The Gateway, the Keller Property) are about to displace almost 50 percent of the available downtown parking. These new projects — hurricane-hardened and representing over $60 million of new investment — will anchor the downtown for decades to come, but parking needs to be addressed.
A few weeks ago, a former Dunedin employee and guest columnist made the case against parking meters downtown. Ironically, during most of his Dunedin career, there was a parking meter in front of every space in the city center. But first, let's all speak the same language: No one is advocating to once again place unsightly meters in every parking stall downtown. What is under consideration is state-of-the-art pay stations (one per block) that will accept coins, cash or a credit card and even text your cellphone if you need more time.
In the column, the author makes several points worthy of rebuttal.
• The mid 20th century decline of downtown Dunedin was caused by "pro-development" elected officials who allowed a four-lane road through the downtown. Quoting the column, "This vision of prosperity by elected officials of that day totally ruined the character of the downtown and use of the downtown by residents came pretty much to a total halt." The truth is that this phenomenon happened to thousands of downtowns across the country as retail development moved to the suburbs with strip centers and eventually regional malls.
• All of the beautiful downtown improvements (landscaping, pavers, undergrounding utilities, parks and lighting) came at taxpayer expense. True, but what taxpayers are we talking about? The fact is that since the creation of Community Revitalization Area in 1988, the taxes used for beautification come from increases in the county and city property taxes paid by landowners in the downtown only. Without the investment of homeowners, merchants, restaurateurs and bar owners, the downtown would not have evolved to what it is today.
• According to the column, "The downtown was to be for the use and enjoyment for the residents of the city." Of course it is, but isn't a lot of our success due to tourism — one of the pillars of the city's Economic Development Master Plan? Ask any merchant or restaurateur if he or she could survive on summer (resident-only) revenue; the answer would be no. Don't we owe our downtown partners, who invested their own money in new ventures, the ability to flourish and grow by sharing our special downtown with visitors ranging from Palm Harbor to around the globe? Their success, since 1988, has created a parking problem that most downtowns would love to have.
• A proposed hotel on Douglas Avenue is driving the desire for a downtown parking garage. Not the case. Long before a hotel was ever considered for Douglas Avenue, the desire for a downtown parking garage was clearly expressed in the 2012 CRA Master Plan Update presented to the Pinellas County Commission to extend the CRA for an additional 15 years to 2033. A vertical parking structure provides certainty (parking not at-risk) and a more efficient land use than the scattered patchwork of public/private surface lots in use today.
Parking committee approach
To proactively address the coming parking shortage and other parking concerns, a group of stakeholders (residents, merchants, property owners, city staff) got together to study the issues and reach some consensus on a way forward. Toward this end, the committee hosted outreach meetings with specific groups — residents of Edgewater Arms, Downtown Dunedin Merchants Association, Dunedin Chamber of Commerce, Marina Advisory Board, DCO (information table) and Rotary Club of Dunedin. Each group issued statements endorsing the process.
The committee met over a dozen times in three months to promote a sense of urgency that will finally address and act upon the same parking problems identified in four parking studies dating back to 2008.
•How do we replace up to 50 percent of our downtown parking? More surface or new structured?
• How do we move parking "squatters" off Main Street? Enforcement? Chalk tires? Pay stations?
• Should we go vertical with a parking garage? If yes, how is it financed? City? Private? Both?
• Should we recommend a paid parking program? Who will pay? How much?
To assist with analysis, the committee asked the city to use Walker Parking Consultants to recommend the best parking practices for downtown.
• Add 300 spaces to meet current parking demand levels and address the projected loss of leased and overflow parking areas.
• Time limits should be used as a management tool. Without enforcing the time limits, pay stations are the only way to encourage turnover.
• Use a hybrid approach to implementing paid parking by providing a mix of both paid and free parking.
• Leverage all potential paid parking revenues to address the high cost of providing structured parking.
The DPC agrees with the recommendations from the consultant as a way to support the continued evolution of downtown Dunedin as a world-class destination. Three hundred new spaces are critical to replace the displacement of current parking by new development. Time limits, with state-of-the-art pay stations offering the first two hours free for Dunedin residents, will create a revenue stream to fund future parking infrastructure improvements. There should be free parking areas off Main Street to accommodate employees and long-term parking. The goal should be to gradually move toward structured vertical parking as a preferred land use that provides certainty and is easy to find.
• Sixty-three percent of downtown public parking is privately owned and subject to development. Action by the city is required.
• The need for parking management is an evolutionary result of a very popular destination — a good problem to have.
• No one wants to pay for parking, but parking is never free. City-leased lots with parking enforcement will cost the city more than $225,000 annually. We prefer this $225,000 of CRA revenue to go toward more landscaping, pavers, improvements to Pioneer Park, undergrounding utilities and pedestrian-scale lighting.
• Circling cars looking for parking spaces do not provide an ideal outdoor dining experience. Inconspicuous pay stations (one per 10 spaces) will not change the ambiance of downtown Dunedin.
• The many scattered surface parking lots discourage development, are not aesthetically pleasing and are hard to find.
Downtown Dunedin is evolving, and the city's approach to parking management needs to evolve with it.
Peter Kreuziger is president and CEO of Advantus, a multimillion-dollar international corporation that owns and operates resort operations, tour and travel companies. He is a founding member of the Dunedin Merchants Association and operates Bon Appetit restaurant, which he opened in 1976.