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May 11, 2007

Downtown Parking Woes

George Wenschhof

We should stop tripping over dollars to pick up pennies and seriously consider making changes in parking policy for downtown Frederick.

Parking your car should be part of the overall pleasant experience you have when you visit or work in historic downtown Frederick.

The resiliency and the resurrection of the downtown have been fantastic in many ways since I was a young boy living on West Church Street and attending Parkway Elementary School. I'll always remember my late mother's comments about how ugly it looked entering Frederick on South Market Street with all the overhead electric lines obstructing the view of the existing architectural beauty.

Much has occurred since my mother uttered those words 50 years ago. The electric lines have been buried; the downtown has survived Mother Nature; experienced reversals and renewals; developed a "Georgetown" feel; created a Historic District, and finally seen economic development result from the Carroll Creek flood control project.

With the revival and subsequent economic development, more people are living, working and shopping downtown, which was the desired effect. However, this added traffic in a limited land area has resulted in parking woes for those who visit and work downtown.

Some buildings are fortunate and have parking behind them for their workers or customers, while the majority relies on metered parking and parking decks.

I was working for Frederick County when the first parking deck was built on East Church Street across from Winchester Hall, county government headquarters. Since then three more decks have been built and all are reportedly at capacity.

It is obvious more decks are needed. One is already in the planning stages in the area of East All Saints and East Streets. This is to accommodate the employees of the Board of Education at their yet to be built headquarters. Additional sites for building decks also need to be identified.

When former Mayor James Grimes purchased the land known as the "Carmack's Property," I told him I thought it was a wise purchase for the City of Frederick at the price that was paid. I suggested the city consider building a parking deck there with first floor commercial space, which could have included a convenience store for local residents.

Instead the property was sold to Tesoro's, a bulk food store that did not survive. The city was able to re-obtain the property and subsequently sold it to Douglas Development Corp.; years later, after a tasteful rehab, we are still awaiting a tenant.

As to the parking deck policies, the city used to have attendants from 9 A.M. to 6 P.M. with the cost to exit being $1 after 6. At some point city officials decided it should be 9 P.M. before a person could exit for one dollar and extended the attendants work hours to 9 P.M. Officials realized that many people who worked downtown were waiting another hour or so after they got off to get out of the deck for only a buck.

I would suggest reverting back to the 6 P.M. time period, for this allows downtown workers (many of whom are wait staff and not hourly employees) who get off at 5 P.M. to stay and shop for an hour and be able to leave at a cost of $1 to park for the day.

How to manage metered parking has also gone through many variations with even a bizarre ill-fated attempt at some type of European parking scheme where you paid for a parking sticker at one location and then had to return to your car to place it inside the windshield(in case of theft).

Thankfully this experiment, on the block of West Patrick Street where the Weinberg is located, clearly showed the ridiculousness of this confusing multi-step approach to parking your car; this attempt was abruptly ended.

However, the last change to metered parking was the doubling of price. It used to cost 50 cents an hour, now it's $1. There are changes that could be easily made here to create a more friendly parking experience.

First, I would suggest rolling back the cost of metered parking to 30 minutes for a quarter.

Secondly, I would suggest that metered parking that exists outside the downtown shopping district be extended to four hours from the current two hours.

Thirdly, and most important, I would reinstitute the Validation Boxes on street corners downtown. A visitor could then take their ticket, within 15 minutes of it being issued, to the Validation Box - simply punch the time clock and deposit the ticket in the slot for a waiver of the fine.

Presently, if you know the policy, and few do, if you receive a ticket on Market or Patrick Streets you can take your ticket to the parking deck on S. Court Street within 15 minutes and have your fine waived; but these waivers are limited to three times per year.

How many times has a person been engaged in conversation at lunch, been busy shopping, or otherwise enjoying themselves downtown, then look at their watch and realize they are a few minutes late on their meter. Allowing them to validate the ticket and have it voided within 15 minutes would be a more friendly approach.

In addition, on the "First Saturday" Event of every month, I would propose free metered parking for that day. This is a very successful event for the downtown merchants and Kara Norman and the Downtown Frederick Partnership should be commended for their outstanding efforts. This event has been a huge boom for downtown businesses. Providing free parking on that day would only aid in this success.

Also, a discussion on the non-metered parking spaces that surround the Baker Park area should occur. Many people have played the "parking game" by parking there and walking downtown to work. City meter attendants do monitor length of time, which is limited to two hours; but perhaps meters there should be discussed. Yet that might not be overly friendly to those wanting to use the park facilities.

Recently a free shuttle funded by the city to bus people from free parking at Grove Stadium to downtown has attracted attention during the city's budget discussion. The reported cost of $140,000 to $240,000 to benefit a rider ship of 50-60 people has also been questioned.

The parking deck change to 6 P.M. would easily address this issue. The loss in "income" the city would experience with this change would be easily made up in the savings by ending the free shuttle program.

However, I would encourage the city to arrange a daily bus schedule to include stops at the Keys Stadium for potential riders.

Finally, I would encourage working with our representatives in the Maryland General Assembly and U.S. Congress to institute a tax deduction for those individuals who use mass transit to and from work.

We allow those who use their own automobile for work to deduct mileage cost from their taxes. It only makes sense, in this day and age, to allow individuals, who ride a bus, the Metro or train to work, to deduct their cost from their annual income tax.

Re-examining how "we" provide parking downtown would be a healthy exercise and I encourage those of you who are affected to discuss this with City of Frederick officials.

Solving the parking woes downtown is like many problems. A comprehensive approach should be taken with input from those affected.

Revenues received by the city are certainly increased as a result of a thriving and vibrant downtown. Focusing on generating funds from parking fees only would appear to be counter-productive to the overall growth of the city.

With so many positive things happening downtown, let's make the parking experience for people working and visiting historic downtown Frederick a pleasant one.


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