ParkHouston

News / Press

Washington Ave. Stakeholders Weigh Benefits of Managed Parking With Meters, Permits

By Ken Fountain
The Leader

October 31, 2012 -- As the Washington Avenue corridor continues to boom with hip restaurants and bars and a younger set moving into new townhomes in the area, longtime residents and businesses and local officials are grappling with a growing challenge – the steady stream of cars that has made the area Houston’s latest “strip.”

But city offiicals hope to avoid some of the problems that plagued earlier hotspots, notably the Richmond Avenue scene that flourished in the mid-1990s before traffic woes and rising crime drove many people away and left several of the once-hip nightspots as vacant shells.

The idea they’ve come up is a Parking Benefit District, a special-purpose district that would create a managed paid parking system where much of the revenue generated would go back to the community in the form of economic development projects.

The plan is moving through the development stage, with a draft ordinance soon be considered by a Houston City Council committee before going to a vote before the full Council sometime this fall. If approved, implementation would begin by the end of the year and be completed by next spring.

Councilwoman Ellen Cohen, whose newly reconfigured District C has been dubbed by many as the “hipstrict,” hosted a town hall meeting Oct. 24 to present the idea to the general public after previously holding a series of “stakeholder meetings” with business groups and residential associations.

A somewhat sparse but engaged audience listened intently as Cohen and other officials described the idea in a large meeting room of the West End Multi-Service Center.

“We’ve been in office for 10 months, and we’ve been working on this issue for seven of them” Cohen as she led off the discussion.

The bulk of the presentation was made by Don Pagel, the city’s deputy director of parking management, who said that much of the thinking behind the new parking benefit district is driven by advances in technology in the parking industry in the past few years, as well as concepts in a book called “The High Cost of Free Parking,” (http://www.amazon.com/The-High-Cost-Free-Parking/dp/188482998) by Donald Shoup, an urban planning professor at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Pagel said the Washington Avenue parking benefit district could be “stepping stone” to a full-fledged management district for the area, similar to the nearby Midtown Management District, that would provide economic benefits and services to the area “without all of the overhead.”

Pagel laid out some of the basic facts stemming from the recent growth in the area — there are about 160 business entities in a 46-block area that has free on-street parking and a mix of free and paid parking at off-street lots.

Pagel told the audience that property values in the Washington Corridor district rose 26 percent between 2001 and 2011, with most of that increase since 2006, when the entertainment district began to take off in a big way. But at the same time, a host of problems has also occurred, including increased congestion and air pollution, as well as a 32 percent increase in non-violent crime from 2010 to 2011.

It was factors like that that helped lead to the decline of the Richmond Avenue entertainment district, Pagel said, which officials hope to avoid in the Washington Avenue corridor.

One of the classic problems that such entertainment areas encounters, Pagel said, is that most employees of bars and restaurants arrive earlier than patrons, taking up the free parking available on the streets. Meanwhile, he said, valet services sometimes try to “reserve” spaces in the public right-of-way, which is illegal.

That causes patrons to circle around looking for parking spots or parking on nearby residential streets, inconveniencing homeowners.

The “only available tool” to resolve the situation, Pagel said, is a residential permit parking program in which residential groups can apply to have streets designated as no-parking zones. Residents would then pay $25 a year for permits.

Meanwhile, new parking meters would be installed along Washington Avenue and nearby streets, which would allow patrons to pay by credit card or with their smartphones. Pagel noted that the younger set that is most drawn to the area’s bars and restaurants would likely readily find that an attractive option. And it’s the people with the most money to spend who are most likely to go elsewhere if they can’t find parking, he noted.

The city has also identified several parking lots in the area — including two lots for city employees — that could provide several hundred more spaces, Pagel said. The city is already working with the owners of some of the private lots to get them onboard, he said. Some of those lots — including at the Multi-Service Center itself — could be designated for employees of the area’s bars and restaurants, freeing up more street parking.

Most of the revenue generated from the meters and parking lots would go to the parking benefit district entity and used for community improvement projects that would enhance the area, such as landscaping, lighting, sidewalk repairs and, possibly, future parking structures.

Those projects would be decided on by an Advisory Committee, made up of business representatives and community members appointed by the mayor. The exact number of members, as well as the makeup, has not yet been fixed in the draft ordinance, Pagel said.

If approved by Council, the Washington Avenue Corridor Parking Benefit Program would begin as a pilot program lasting 18 months. After that, it could be modified, continued as it is or terminated based on a recommendation by the City Council. The revenue split between community projects and the administrative costs — now set at 60/40 percent — could also be modified at the end of the 18 months.

Pagel said under the proposed ordinance, the district would need to generate at least $250,000 in net revenues to initiate enhancement projects. Based on the projections his department has done, Pagel said that could easily be achieved with a 50 percent occupancy rate. At an 80 percent occupancy rate, the district could generate $657,660 in net revenues during the 18-month pilot program.

The total annual recurring costs for the program are projected to be $275,000, which would pay the salaries of two parking enforcement officers, one meter mechanic/collector, as well as signage and maintenance costs and other capital costs over a five-year period, Pagel said. The Houston Police Department would also devote more officers to the area, he said.

If the program were continued, the district could generate more than $5 million in a 10-year period, Pagel said.

In a question-and-answer session that followed Pagel’s presentation, several residents and area business owners asked several pointed questions about the specifics of the proposed district.

Fernando Herrera, vice-president of the Cottage Grove Civic Association, noted that the city government has spent a lot of funds in the restoration of other parts of town, and allowed that there was a “delicate balance” that must be struck between business growth and residential protection. But, he said, he didn’t want to see something like the Montrose Management District, which he noted had drawn a lot of opposition from business owners in that area.

Monica Savino, an area resident who also owns an architecture firm in the Washington Avenue corridor, said the proposal was a positive first step toward alleviating the area’s growing pains, but said it would need to be continually monitored and improved upon.

Information about the proposed district, as well as an opportunity to pose questions about it, can be found at the website www.houston.tx.gov/parking/washingtonavenue.html.

You can also see this story at http://www.theleadernews.com/?p=3080.