by CHRIS ROGERS
John Dorsett and David Garza cruised slowly through downtown streets and parking lots in Winona last week, counting every parked car. These two parking experts for Walker Consultants have been hired by the city for its much-anticipated downtown parking study, and last week they got a taste for how much Winonans disagree about this issue.
Numerous downtown business owners who were invited to a meeting with the consultants on Tuesday pointed to the net 83 public parking spaces that the proposed 60 Main Street development would eliminate, and the scores of parking-less apartment units that have not yet been built, but that were “grandfathered in” under the old zoning code, which didn’t require off-street parking spaces for apartments in the center of downtown. When landlord Kent Grover asked how many people were business owners concerned about the 60 Main Street project, half the audience raised their hands. Development is good, but these upcoming apartment projects and the 60 Main Street project itself will create far more parking demand in the center of the city than exists right now, the business owners said. “We’re scared to death if that goes away,” Grover said of the city-owned parking lot behind the Winona 7 cinema where the 60 Main Street project is proposed. “Businesses are made or broke because of parking.”
On the flip side, Winona City Council member Michelle Alexander said, “I’ve never had problems parking downtown.” Dennis McEntaffer said the operators of a downtown storefront he used to own complained that there was too much parking and people just parked directly in front of where they were going in a way that didn’t generate any foot traffic between stores.
In recent months, some city leaders have espoused the belief, increasingly popular among city planners, that cities should not mandate or provide off-street parking at all, but let the free market decide how valuable convenient parking is and whether it is worth as much as the land parking lots occupy. Dorsett pointed to the 17 city-owned parking lots in the downtown area. That is more than normal for a city of Winona’s size, he said.
Landlord Adam Cloeter said that the increased demand for parking in downtown Winona was a good sign and a normal part of a city’s progression. Asked in an interview whether that meant the city does not need to provide more parking, Cloeter stated, “It’ll be interesting to see what the consultants say. Their data will be important.”
Their data will include capacity and usage figures for all public and private parking lots and on-street spaces downtown. The consultant counted cars at various times of day both this summer, when many college students were away, and last week, when they were in town. Don’t forget about snow taking up spaces in the winter, a woman urged Garza and Dorsett. At the consultants’ invitation business owners pasted sticky notes to a map of downtown, charting the proposed developments that concerned them. Alexander stuck a note to the parking lot on the east end of Levee Park that read “underused lot.”
The consultants said their study, to be released in January, would model current demand, forecast future parking demand, and analyze the pros and cons of various steps the city could take. The consultants told Winonans they would not so much answer the question “is parking a problem or not?” but forecast parking demand and describe options the city could use to meet demand and/or change parking behavior.
Building parking ramps and charging for parking were two options that were discussed by many last Tuesday.
Some business people brought up the idea of permit parking lots, where downtown employees could pay a monthly rate in exchange for knowing that they could find a spot. Dorsett talked about how permits and meters can be used to incentivize people to park further away — where it is free — or change other parking behavior, but said that paid-parking systems are not often big revenue generators. Downtown property owner Larry Lindholm pushed back against paid parking. “In Winona, we’re pretty cost-sensitive, so if people have to pay for parking, that’s going to hurt businesses, too … If they have to pay for parking, they won’t do business downtown. They’ll go up to Wal-Mart and that’s not what we want,” he stated.
The Oaks owner Kelly Welti said that building one big parking ramp on the centrally located Hardee’s block could take care of the problem. “To take up all of that lot for a parking ramp — it’s really a sweet center of town,” Winona Planning Commission member and downtown developer Peter Shortridge countered.
Parking ramps are really expensive to build, Dorsett cautioned. In response to a question about whether the study would analyze how to fund a parking ramp, Dorsett said that would be considered, “but I’m not going to stand in front of you and pretend to have the magic wand because it’s tough.”
The city could use tax increment financing on some of these big new developments downtown to help fund a parking ramp, Lindholm noted.
Instead of building a parking ramp, perhaps the city could encourage downtown employees and event goers to use satellite parking lots and provide a shuttle to whisk them downtown at frequent intervals, City Council member Paul Schollmeier suggested. Sarvi echoed the concept, asking, “Do you spend $4 million on a ramp or do you spend $4 million bumping up your transit?”
Let’s encourage walking, council member Pam Eyden said. “You could make all of the parking in downtown handicapped parking, except for the outlying lots,” she suggested. Winona could make walking and biking the standard for all able-bodied people, she envisioned. Eyden said, “Just quit with the parking. Just get it out of there. Just get the cars out of here.”
Several people asked about whether the consultants’ study would take future advances in autonomous vehicles into consideration. Autonomous cars will not take over small cities tomorrow, Dorsett said. “I think we’re looking at a longer-term horizon, where you might expect to see larger numbers of autonomous vehicles in 20 or 30 or 40 years out, but that does overlap with the life of a parking ramp, so we have to be thoughtful about that,” he said.
Keep reading the Winona Post for more on this story.