by CHRIS ROGERS
Four months after the release of the city’s downtown parking study, Winona city staff announced plans on Monday to follow some of the study’s recommendations.
Downtown parking has been a hot topic because of numerous proposed development projects that would increase demand for parking, eliminate off-street parking, or both. To assuage concerns, the City Council hired parking experts last year from Walker Consultants to conduct a study of downtown parking needs and potential solutions. Released this January, the study’s headlining conclusion was that Winona has enough downtown parking; however, it did find that there are a few parking “hot spots” and made numerous recommendations for the city to make better use of the parking spots that already exist downtown, including increased enforcement and rearranging 12-hour and two-hour stalls.
After the study, the city did not take action to implement its recommendations. The city did pursue something the parking study did not recommend — creating new parking lots — and began negotiations with Metro Plains to demolish the former junior high auditorium and convert it into a parking lot. Walker Consultants suggested that move in March in response to the impending loss of parking to the Main Square Development project at the Hardee’s block. Now, four months since the release of Walker’s original parking study, city staff are developing a plan to implement some of its recommendations.
“I think it’s great we had a study done and now we’re actually going to do the work,” Mayor Mark Peterson said.
City’s plan to maximize downtown parking
On Monday, city staff unveiled a draft Parking Performance Plan. Following up on the Walker study’s recommendation that the city rearrange parking time limits to encourage short-term parking in the downtown core and encourage long-term parking on the downtown fringe, the staff members’ plan calls for converting several 12-hour parking stalls to two-hour stalls. Like turning over tables at a restaurant, these shorter time limits will help ensure there is available parking for downtown shoppers, Winona Assistant City Planner Luke Sims stated. In total, 14 stalls at the three different lots would be converted from 12-hour to two-hour parking, under the draft plan.
The staff plan also includes proposals to increase on-street handicap-accessible parking stalls downtown. That was a major recommendation of the Walker study, which recommended two handicap-accessible stalls per block. City staff recommends adding handicap-accessible stalls, but fewer than Walker advised: one per block and only on east-west blocks. Effectively, Walker recommended four stalls per square block; city staff recommend one stall per square block until data shows that a second is needed. “We felt that adding as many as [Walker] recommended was overkill,” city manager Steve Sarvi explained.
In interviews this spring, Winonans with disabilities said that the poor distribution of handicap-accessible stalls downtown was a real barrier for them. Some blocks have lots of handicap-accessible spaces, Peter Flick said. “You can go someplace else — there are none,” he added. “It doesn’t do you any good if your handicap-accessible parking is a block away from where you want to be,” Roxy Kohner stated.
The Walker study also stated that the city’s parking rules are commonly violated because the city’s enforcement system is weak. City staff agreed that parking fines should be increased. “People viewed the $10 fine as paying for parking for the day,” Sims said. “We wanted to make sure that’s no longer the case.” He recommended increasing the fine to $20, though Sims’ report acknowledges that may still be too low.
Walker recommended dedicating more staff to enforcement. According to officials at city hall, the Winona Police Department currently has a half-time position focusing on parking enforcement and other duties. Walker recommended one full-time position focusing solely on parking enforcement. In their draft plan, city staff members agree that this should be the city’s goal, but they do not layout a clear plan for how or when the city would get there. “The city of Winona will continue to look at staffing increase opportunities in parking enforcement to reach 1.0 [full-time equivalents] per the recommendations from Walker Consultants,” they promise. Winona Police Chief Paul Bostrack said there was actually a misunderstanding between his department and other city staff and consultants. He said the department’s parking officer is a full-time position and that city officials’ descriptions of the position as half-time were based on estimates of how much time she actually spends on the street, writing tickets. However, that estimate is probably low, Bostrack said.
Additionally, city officials reported that some Winonans had learned the parking officer’s schedule and were taking advantage of it to avoid fines. The officer is laying plans to make her schedule less predictable, city staff stated.
Finally, the city’s plan lays out an aspirational goal to collect more parking data than ever going forward. If staff members have the time, they should conduct weeklong surveys once a month, counting parked cars in the morning, afternoon, and evening, the plan proposes. That much car-counting would be far more than city staff have ever done before and more than Walker Consultants did, but ongoing surveys could come in handy as new developments change parking supply and demand over time. “This is going to be a moving target,” Sarvi told the council. “We’ll implement. We’ll observe. We’ll change.” Council member Al Thurley added, “Especially with the changes coming to the downtown.”
Right now, the Parking Performance Plan is just a draft. Many of its proposals would require City Council approval to implement.
City also eyeing potential new lots
Sarvi and Peterson said the city will continue to pursue two strategies at once: making the most of existing parking spaces and creating new parking spaces, including by acquiring new property. In addition to its tentatively successful deal with Metro Plains to purchase the former junior high auditorium and convert it into a parking lot, city staff tried to purchase a small grass lot from Wesley United Methodist Church for parking. Church leaders ultimately decided they were not interested. Sarvi said the city will keep looking for property it could purchase for parking and for redevelopment.
“I think we should do both,” Peterson said of better utilizing existing parking and creating new parking lots. Obviously, the city should follow the recommendations in the parking study, he stated. “At the same time, as the downtown is evolving, we should look at the areas where parking is an issue, and try to do something about it,” Peterson added.
Late last month, Fastenal announced plans to build a new, 400-600-employee office building in downtown Winona, and Fastenal executive Dana Johnson — who also serves on the city’s Port Authority Commission — mentioned the possibility of a public-private partnership to provide parking for that project.
City officials are also hoping they can regain some lost parking under the Winona bridge. Sarvi said he has asked the Minnesota Department of Transportation (Mn/DOT) to reconsider allowing parking under the completed Winona interstate bridges. Prior to the launch of the Winona bridge project, scores of Winonans parked under the historic bridge, but Mn/DOT officials said that because of U.S. Department of Homeland Security rules aimed at minimizing terrorism risks, parking could not be allowed under the completed bridges. However, Sarvi stated that Mn/DOT has allowed parking under bridges in other communities. “I don’t quite understand the logic,” he said.
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