To say that parking in downtown San Antonio is currently a dysfunctional mess would be a polite understatement.
With all due apologies to the hardworking folks who establish and enforce parking policies, it seems like downtown has become a sea of signs featuring a big red “NO.”
However, there is hope on the horizon. According to District 1 Councilman Diego Bernal, “We realize we need an aggressive, innovative approach to parking.”
Over the last three decades, entire blocks of parking meters were stripped away to be replaced by loading zones or no parking whatsoever – two prime examples are Nueva Street next to La Villita, and Market Street across from the Convention Center.
There were logical reasons for doing so, but was the solution worse than the original problem?
Yes, there are surface parking lots and parking garages available, and Bernal points out the relative affordability of city-owned garages.
“City parking lots aren’t full, but they have reasonable rates,” he said.
Why? Because it’s human nature to want to park on the street, as cheaply as possible.
When events do occur downtown, parking in lots or garages can be expensive. At the Asian Festival, it cost $11 to park at the Institute of Texan Cultures, while admission was only $10. The byproduct of aggressive prices like these is that it encourages people to park in nearby neighborhoods, which causes a hue and cry among residents of those areas.
So what’s the solution to all of these problems? In the words of Lavaca resident Michael Berrier, “Anyone who thinks they have the answer doesn’t know what they’re talking about…but we need the answer.”
The urban parking discussion can be parsed into issues affecting the central business district (CBD) and those of the surrounding neighborhoods.
In the CBD, the problem centers around overzealous parking restrictions that in some cases have led to desolate urban canyons.
In the neighborhoods, it’s the dynamic tension between homeowners versus event visitors and daytime workers.
As demonstrated by Robert Rivard’s recent piece about the permit parking pilot project in his soon-to-be neighborhood, the issue of who gets to park in the street in front of one’s home is a touchy subject.
On the most elemental level, the answer is that they are public streets, and anyone has the right to park there. But it isn’t that simple…
Inner-city homes were mostly built during the infancy of the automotive era. It wasn’t until the 1950s that families started owning two or more cars. Ample parking was not a priority when these homes were built. Inner-city lots are smaller (50 feet by 150 feet on average), and driveways tend to be narrow. Proximity to the central business district – being able to walk to work or local businesses – took precedence over everything else. Fast forward to the 21st century: many families own multiple cars and often not enough driveway space to park them.
And so it becomes a perfect storm. Homeowners want to park in front of their houses. Suburbanites going to events at the Alamodome or First Friday prefer to park nearby without paying usurious rates. Workers at local businesses need a place to park. Everyone ends up frustrated with everyone else. And the solutions are less than elegant.
In the Lavaca neighborhood, the solution has been to install signs that say “No Parking 2 Hours Before Events.” A recent example is the Asian Festival. Upon leaving this event, I witnessed parking enforcement officers out and about, with plenty of opportunities to write tickets.
Not only were people parking in the two-hour restriction zones, they were also ignoring “No Parking Anytime” signs. According to residents, cars have blocked driveways on occasion.
People can be surprisingly passionate about on-street parking. According to Berrier, an argument over a public parking spot in San Francisco’s Nob Hill neighborhood led to a fatal shooting. To prevent future conflict, permit parking was introduced to the area soon thereafter.
Then there’s the central business district. In past years, available on-street parking was much more abundant than it is today. Why? Business owners and other special interests have requested – and received – loading zone designations. This is understandable given the plethora of delivery trucks that swarm through the CBD during the day.
But is it permissible to park in a loading zone at night, after 6 p.m.? Most people don’t know the answer, including Councilman Bernal and the people I talked to at the Center City Development Office (CCDO), so I did a little research. It turns out the answer is yes. Unless the loading zone is indicated as “Day and Night,” it is permissible to park in those spaces after hours.
But this fact is a well-kept secret, and will likely remain so despite this article. To encourage after-hours parking, I would like to make a modest proposal. It’s self-explanatory:
Another issue is the plethora of no-parking zones in the fringes of the CBD. Perhaps they made sense 40 or 50 years ago when downtown was a vibrant retail center.
But today, vast swaths of streets such as North Main and North Flores resemble deserted urban canyons.
Four lanes of parking-free zones to accommodate traffic that doesn’t exist, except for the infamous “15-minute rush hour” downtown San Antonio is known for.
According to CCDO Assistant Director Colleen Swain, change is coming soon.
“We are working on adjusting parking zones … to add additional parking,” she said.
There are areas in which parking meters exist amongst blocks of vacant buildings. The currently deserted portion of the Broadway corridor is an example.
Until recently, nobody has thought to eliminate them to help spur redevelopment.
According to Swain and Wright, this should be changing soon as well.
Privately owned surface parking lots are generally pieces of land awaiting development. But what will happen when these private lots dwindle in number as they are developed?
“We’re looking at a variety of options,” said Bernal. Possibilities include public/private partnerships to incorporate parking garages in new buildings.
Even more puzzling is the presence of no parking zones that have no apparent reason to exist.
Examples in the Lavaca neighborhood include the street in front of SAISD administrative offices and next to the United Way building. In the case of SAISD, it merely serves to encourage visitors to the school district offices to park in front of residents’ homes. In the case of the United Way building, it denies parking spaces for those who seek to visit local businesses.
There are certain portions of the CBD that require severe parking restrictions. Many downtown streets are little more than glorified alleys along which hotels and restaurants have popped up in recent years. It can be entertaining to watch delivery trucks try to navigate narrow streets while visitors hurriedly unload their cars in front of boutique hotels.
The Home2 Suites Hilton at 603 Navarro St. opens directly on to the west sidewalk for arriving and departing guests, delivery trucks, and valet parking. Morning commuting traffic forms a bottleneck as drivers stop and then merge into the right lane. This also occurs on North St. Mary’s Street next to the Homewood Suites. Anecdotal sources say some valets leave cars standing for an extended period of time.
To exacerbate the matter, delivery trucks have grown in size over the decades. Perhaps vendors should be restricted to using large vans instead of tractor trailers to make deliveries in the CBD.
Houston Street is another point of pain for those venturing downtown. Parking kiosks dot passenger loading zones where fleet-footed valets hustle cars off to nearby parking garages.
However, none of the businesses actually “own” these zones, which generally have a 15-minute time limit. According to CCDO Special Projects Manager Megan Wright, “Valet operators may ask you to move, but you don’t have to.”
“We want to encourage retail on Houston,” Swain said. “It’s important for retail to have at least some on-street parking.”
[Read more: Pop-Up Success: Hope for Houston Street?]
Bernal clarifies this point: “Experience has been that you can park right in front of your destination, but that isn’t true of any downtown.”
Or, as one local (but anonymous) pundit puts it, “There are too many people, and they’re all trying to park in the same spot.”
There is, of course, Downtown Tuesday that provides free parking in city lots and meters from 6 p.m. to 2 a.m. – but it’s just that, Tuesday.
Hotels and other buildings in the CBD have been allowed to be built without adequate visitor drop-off areas. When a tour bus pulls up in front of the Holiday Inn on North St. Mary’s Street, gridlock ensues. Sundays along that strip can be a nightmare before, during and after services at St. Mary’s Catholic Church.
Some say the VIA Modern Streetcar may alleviate some of this congestion. “The streetcar plan will build to ‘ultimate configuration.’ The proposal is to take the west lane and use it for valet parking and drop-off,” Wright said.
The streetcar tracks will run in current center lane, which can also be used by cars. The left lane will be a vehicle lane, without any drop-off area.
It’s obvious to even the casual observer that parking restrictions in downtown San Antonio have emerged in a haphazard fashion. But according to all indications, this will change soon. “As downtown develops, we recognize we need a grand parking plan, and that’s on our to-do list for 2014,” says Bernal.”Parking is part of the 2012 bond, as well as walkability.”
According to the CCDO, the central business district street upgrades are in the planning phase, which is about 30-40 percent complete. “We have to do something quick, soon, and it has to work,” Bernal said.
For surrounding neighborhoods, however, it’s a thorny issue that will likely persist for some time to come.
“There are choices you can make, and there are the right choices,” said Barrier. “They all have upsides and downsides.”
*Featured/top image: “Emergency Restrictions” exist throughout the CBD including this one next to the Fairmount Hotel.Photo by Page Graham.