Submitted by Suanne Z. Thamm
Reporter – News Analyst
June 8,9, 2014 1:00 a.m.

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Study after publicly funded study has demonstrated that while there is the perception of a parking problem downtown, there is no real problem parking downtown in Fernandina Beach.  There are more than enough spaces available, except for special events like Shrimp Fest, to accommodate shoppers, restaurant patrons, sightseers and residents in public lots and on the streets.

As a downtown resident who lives a mere 2 blocks from Centre Street, I concur.  Rarely, other than during church services at St. Michael’s, are street parking places at a premium.  Yet Fernandina Beach City Commissioners are considering the possibility of asking the taxpayers, via a November referendum, to approve a General Obligation Bond to construct a downtown parking garage (among other items).  That bond would be repaid with interest by city property owners.

If you overlaid the Avenues Mall over Fernandina Beach’s Central Business District, you would see that downtown patrons can park closer to their destinations here than Avenue Mall patrons walk to get from Dillard’s to Belk. People used to having to pay a hefty parking fee to park in places like St. Augustine or Savannah are amazed that Fernandina has so much free parking so close to their destinations.

So where’s the problem?  Apparently, according to Commissioner Pat Gass, the problem is with the service workers who can’t find parking spaces close in to their place of employment.  So this is the way the “more parking” advocates define a parking problem:  if shop or restaurant owners and employees cannot park in front of their businesses, there is a problem.  What’s more, by their reasoning, “someone else” –i.e., the taxpayers–should pay for the public parking needs created when their own employees take up close-in parking spaces intended for shoppers and patrons. This logic apparently also applies to the boaters who want a free place to park their trucks and cars for an entire day so that they don’t have to walk far to move their coolers and fishing gear back and forth to their boats.

Several years ago University of Florida professor Bill Tilson, well known to us as the author of design guidelines for the the Historic District and the CRA areas, stated that parking garages are not cost effective for a community with a population under 50,000.  At that time he said that each space in a parking garage costs $14,000.  The latest estimate I’ve heard is from local architect Randy Rice: $15,000 per space.  A parking garage would of necessity be located away from Centre Street.  Does anyone truly believe that those people who complain about having to walk around the corner to park, would be willing to walk several blocks to a garage?

Any of you who ventured downtown during Memorial Day weekend, especially in the evening, know that the town was jam-packed with visitors.  There were quite literally lines outside restaurants that Sunday evening as people patiently waited for a spot to dine.  During that same period, the parking lot behind the library was closed in large part, due to the library expansion.  Yet that did not deter people from visiting downtown.  Indeed, I’ve been informed that even with the temporary closing of the library parking lot, there remain plenty of vacant spaces on the downtown streets on a regular basis.  So where is the need for a parking garage?

PrintDid it ever occur to downtown business owners, some of whom are adamantly opposed to public money being expended on the library, the post office building and a waterfront park, that they have a model to follow in the Friends of the Library?  If the downtown business owners, individually or collectively, truly believe that they need more parking, why don’t they assume some responsibility (and cost) to provide it?  Nothing prevents them from buying or leasing land that could hold a parking lot for employees.  They could also buy land and build a parking garage outside the Central Business District and run a shuttle to downtown.  Why is it that the “parking problem” can only be solved with public money?

Why do we as a city allow a small group to hold hostage any public improvement projects over exaggerated or phony parking problems?  Over almost 20 years living in downtown Fernandina Beach, I have learned a few things about “the parking problem”:

  • Downtown business and restaurant owners often park in front of their own establishments, taking up space all day that could be used by paying customers.
  • Some downtown business and restaurant owners have told their staffs not to park in front of their own businesses, but have no problem with these “service workers” parking in front of someone else’s business.
  • Many merchants and restaurateurs on Centre Street have no problem taking up parking spaces for businesses off Centre Street.
  • Boaters who keep their boats in the water at the city marina or those who take Charter Boats from the city marina regularly take up spaces for an entire day in the city’s waterfront lots on either side of Brett’s, instead of moving toward long term parking areas south of Atlantic Seafood.  This means that downtown shoppers and restaurant patrons need to search further afield for short-term parking.
  • While downtown merchants claim to want to see the 3-hour parking limit enforced, they have not yet offered to fund one or more positions in the city to accomplish such enforcement.  Since our current government philosophy seems to support cutting government employment to the bone to save money for taxpayers, there is currently little money in public coffers to support parking enforcement or greater code enforcement.

To be fair to the Historic Fernandina Beach Business Association, the last time the issue of downtown parking arose before the City Commission, they provided the city with a list of steps that could be taken, many at little or no cost, to help the situation.  The first was–duh–a call for immediate action by the city to adopt a parking plan for downtown. One of the bullets in their report read, “The so-called ‘parking crisis’ is in fact a ‘parking management crisis.'” I don’t believe that their report was ever discussed in a public meeting; I am not aware that action has been taken to reply or address suggestions they raised more than a year ago.  Shouldn’t that report be considered before deciding that the only answer is an expensive parking garage?

You can’t blame the tourists for the parking problem, since they will gladly park wherever the city tells them to park, overjoyed to realize that there is so much parking available – and it’s all free.  The real parking problem lies with the mindset of certain advocates for entrenched local interests who believe that any person should be able to park anywhere s/he wants whenever s/he wants at no cost and no inconvenience to others.  So, having said all of this, should the city of Fernandina Beach put money into solving a perception when there are so many real problems — like storm water drainage–that need to be solved?

In promoting his plan for the waterfront park, local architect Randy Rice said that the owner of an empty lot just north of the city marina would be willing to rent that lot for parking to the city for $3,000-3,500 per month.  The downtown merchants could also rent that lot for employee parking.  The Charter Boat Fishermen could rent it for their patrons.  Amelia River Cruises could rent it for their patrons.  None of these groups seem to have jumped at the idea, but would love for the city to rent it so that their businesses could make use of it.

For those who happily rewind and play the “parking problem” tape every time there is talk of downtown improvements, how about forming some sort of alliance or confederation or association or whatever to raise money toward solving this problem?  If the Friends of the Library can do it, you can, too.  Especially if as you claim, the success of your own business depends on providing more parking.

But keep this in mind as your consider doing so.  If your employees and your patrons won’t walk two blocks off Centre Street to park on the street, why would they walk the same distance or more to park in a garage?

Suanne ThammEditor’s Note: Suanne Z. Thamm is a native of Chautauqua County, NY, who moved to Fernandina Beach from Alexandria,VA, in 1994. As a long time city resident and city watcher, she provides interesting insight into the many issues that impact our city. We are grateful for Suanne’s many contributions to the Fernandina Observer.

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Dave Lott
Dave Lott (@guest_19689)
8 years ago

Some great questions you have posed. Another question I have is that if, for whatever reason of which I can’t imagine, it is determined that a parking garage is needed, where would it be located? How many spaces would it have to accomodate to relieve the current “parking problem.” I suspect that given the space requirements for such a garage, there is no undeveloped area in the downtown area that is large enough to accomodate such a structure.

Malcolm Noden
Malcolm Noden (@guest_19691)
8 years ago

The parking “problem” could be partially alleviated by arranging for the city or the downtown business association to rent the use of the vacant parking lot on the north side of the former Baptist church located at 5th. Street and Alachua Street.

The main church building was leased by the Baptist congregation when it moved to its new larger sanctuary on 14th. Street. The lessee is the Spanish speaking congregation known as La Tierra Promentida, (The Promised Land), church whose pastor is Carlos Serrano.

Since the lot in question could easily handle 50 or more cars, and is largely unused except during Sunday morning services, I am reasonably sure that Pastor Serrano would be happy to lease the space in order to help offset his church expenses.

Moreover, the location would permit the employees/owners of Center Street businesses to park nearby without taking space from the shoppers and visitors.

Anne Oman
Anne Oman (@guest_19692)
8 years ago

As a former resident of Washington, D.C., I can attest that there is absolutely no parking problem in Fernandina Beach. The idea is laughable. And parking garages are always ugly. Don’t ruin our beautiful downtown by erecting one there.

Peggy Bulger
Peggy Bulger(@peggy-bulger1949gmail-com)
8 years ago
Reply to  Anne Oman

I totally agree . . . . it is a ridiculous notion that we must all park directly in front of the venue we wish to visit. I have never seen parking so bad that you could not find a legal and FREE parking space within 2-3 blocks, and the little walk will do you good!!

chuck hall
chuck hall (@guest_19695)
8 years ago

While there is ‘never enough’ parking anywhere…..With a bit of enforcement, and cooperation from the employees, this is not worth 4 million dollars.
This will never fly….this town is anti-growth and anti-tax enough to stop it.

tony crawford
tony crawford (@guest_19697)
8 years ago

Someone told me recently that we don’t have a “parking problem” downtown –we have a “walking problem.” I have, over the past few weeks, driven downtown to see for myself if, at least in my mind, parking was an not an issue. I have driven around mid-day as well as early evenings. Never were there not open spaces well within walking distance of the water front. It is true that the closer you got to the waterfront the more spaces were full, but the closer you got to 8the street the spaces were plentiful. The side streets all along Center Street had open spaces, and the parking lot by City Hall had many open spaces. The fact is there were many open spaces throughout the downtown area no matter what time of the day or night I drove around.
I took the time to speak to some of the business owners downtown, as well as some of the representatives of the Business association and some public officials. It seems most would agree that a public parking garage would be overkill. I don’t believe that with the number of available spaces throughout the City a parking garage would be a responsible expenditure of taxpayer money. If it was to be a paid parking facility, I wonder why anyone would pay when there are free spaces available. I would think most companies who would consider operating such a facility would come in and figure out what the “overflow” from free spaces would be to see if it would be a profitable venture. I am sure they would make money on a few of our busy weekends during season, but on the average day and during off season would it be profitable? This would turn into one large white elephant that we would be paying for.
There are a few ways to look at this. From an economic point of view, is it good to have customers park in front of the store or restaurant they are going to? No!!! If you have to park a block or so away from your desired location, you have to “walk” past other stores and restaurants. When this happens people go into the various shops that they pass and more often than not spend money. They go past other restaurants, look inside, see menus and hopefully they will come back and try the place at a later date. Walking along Center Street and along side streets promotes local business.
The question then is: what can be done to make parking easier and solve any problems with regard to parking without spending a great deal of money? Some of the ideas I heard are: improve the lot at City Hall; have better signage to direct tourists to side street parking; make changes to some of our parking rules to make sure they are up to date with the needs of all concerned; create designated parking areas for shop employes and strongly encourage them to walk the block or two each day. These are all simple and affordable ways to help solve some of the problems, and encourage walking. The most important thing would be to hear the suggestions of those around the City who have experience in this area. I may be 100% out of my mind, but I really don’t think business owners are going to lay out their money for any parking area. Why? Because most don’t really think there is a problem, and most would want more foot traffic past their store or restaurant.

John Campbell Elwell
John Campbell Elwell(@elwelljohnyahoo-com)
8 years ago
Reply to  tony crawford

You are “dead on” Tony. The only people that think we have a parking problem are the ones who don’t like to walk more than 1-2 blocks.

Dave Lott
Dave Lott (@guest_19702)
8 years ago
Reply to  tony crawford

Spot on Tony! When recently in Savannah we walked for blocks and blocks around the squares throughout the historic district and up and down River Street, all while our car remained parked at the hotel. Same is true around Beaufort SC (paid parking lots along the riverfront) and St. Augustine.

Robert Warner
Robert Warner (@guest_19699)
8 years ago

My experience with parking garages in places like our own (Ft. Myers to be more precise) is that the owner of the “parking garage” always wins – while those living in the city, lose. Let well enough alone, and get on with ideas that contribute to Fernandina Beach as the Key West of Northern Florida. I have never not found a parking place downtown when I needed one.

tony crawford
tony crawford (@guest_19700)
8 years ago

Key West of Northern Florida—I like that

Betsie Huben
Betsie Huben (@guest_19748)
8 years ago

Thank you for this terrific article Ms. Thamm!!!! This is highly informative and much needed. I only wish I knew a way to “share” your insights all around town with all those who cannot attend council meetings. Mr. Rice’s amazing Amelia Waterfront Park plan was parking “neutral” and managed to get shot down as an alternative to the WAG plan even though it was to be funded through grants and private donations. Why? Because of the perceived “parking problems” downtown. Despite his Herculean efforts to overcome every single objection that was thrown at him over a series of meetings – a flap was raised over his plan to reorganize some parking in the vicinity of the marina thus creating a walk of one block for some. Not a NYC block mind you – a FB block! Not all parking mind you. Some. Sometimes I sit in the back of the FBCC meetings and I just want to cry. The public should see ALL the plans, ALL the payment options and make choices when they vote. Who would not vote for a plan that does not rely on additional taxes? Rant over for now.

Nancy Dickson
Nancy Dickson(@nancyjackathenshotmail-com)
8 years ago

Thank you for a very informative and persuasive article. The one question still lingering is “whose brother-in-law has been promised the parking garage/lot contract?”. Often these sorts of unnecessary and unwanted projects are shoved through to line someone’s relative’s pockets.

Emily Carmain
Emily Carmain(@ecarmainbellsouth-net)
8 years ago

If I were listening to Suanne speak those words somewhere, I would be loudly clapping and yelling “Yes, yes, YES!!!” I live near downtown and go there often, take visitors down there every time someone comes, and I’ve never had to park more than a block from wherever I wanted to go. It’s a nonexistent “problem” and would be absurd for the city (or even the businesses) to have to spend a lot of money for more parking. A parking garage would be an awful addition, ugly and totally out of tune with the feel, look and appeal of our historic downtown. I believe if business owners would require employees to park somewhere off Centre St. and off at least the first blocks in any direction, it would help much more than taking up space with more paved territory. And with all the things the city needs funds for, this should be struck off the list and if the money exists, use it for something more important and more desirable.

J.R. Lang
J.R. Lang(@jrichlangcomcast-net)
8 years ago

Great comments!! Two thoughts. I wonder if the library expansion will include employee parking at the old 1st Baptist lot?? Would elimination of the down town boat ramp help parking and facilitate traffic?? The county ramp at the end of 14th street is really a first class facility.

Randy Rice
Randy Rice (@guest_19763)
8 years ago

The City could “Judo” CRA development to increase public parking. (use the momentum of development to increase public parking through a modification to the CRA density bonus program.)

There is an extensive density bonus program currently in place to allow for higher density on CRA property. There is also a fee driven parking substitution policy where a developer could pay the city $1000 per space instead of providing parking on their land.

Eliminate this fee (as the city has no means of providing spaces if given this money, which might lead to another law suit) and instead give density bonuses for private developers who include public parking as part of their development. You could see an effort a la Lane Development which had an interior block parking garage that included one level of public parking with private parking above.

Couple this with a CRA resident permit fee (to disinsentivize cars in the downtown district) to forever fund new city parking opportunities and you’ve got something!!!

Know that one of the driving directives to CRA development is to provide some housing for people who work in town…(less car traffic, more foot traffic for businesses), but to include an expensive parking space requirement for these units makes the units too expensive, defeating the purpose of workforce housing. Rather “tax” (via a permit) a CRA resident that parks a car overnight on the street. This will keep some from “dumping” a car for long periods in prime parking and give the city monies to buy new parking spaces as the funds acrue, for those who wish to have a car downtown but do not have a parking space with their unit (or have two or three cars!)

By the way these are also some of your future park users. They will have no yards, likely have a child or two, and a pet. Those with the ears of the commissioners, make sure to promote a park that can handle these users. Remember one acre per 100 persons is about right for park space, and the current park plan is about 1/3 of an acre (with prospects for expansion).

I am one who agrees that there is more perception than reality re parking downtown, but max out the CRA without a strong parking strategy and you will find that our parking bliss will turn into a parking “miss”ed opportunity.

Mary Anne Sharer
Mary Anne Sharer(@mwaikartgmail-com)
8 years ago

Another wonderful, fact-filled, artical from Suann Thamm. Add me to the list of those who have never experienced a parking problem downtown. Can’t imagine why we would wish to add such an ugly structure to our beautiful little town.

And it just occured to me that perhaps the Baptists could rent to the Catholics on Sundays! and to the merchants the rest of the week.

dick bentley
dick bentley (@guest_21169)
8 years ago

I’d appreciate seeing more material on parking garages.
Everyone seems to agree that they are ugly and expensive,
but many planning boards in many towns (including Amherst Massachusetts)
don’t really care if they are ugly, and feel they can foist parking
garages off onto the taxpayers’ resources, which means
that taxpayers are footing the bill for new development,
making developers rich at the taxpayers expense…subsidizing
new construction that’s supposed to pay for itself.

Would love your thoughts, please comment.x