TAMPA — Commuters are getting frustrated these days, winding their way to the top floors of downtown parking garages searching for elusive open spaces close to their offices.
Sometimes they find a spot, sometimes they don’t.
Convenient monthly parking spaces — spaces within two blocks of a commuter’s office — are becoming a challenge to find in the downtown core.
And with so much business growth and new development expected down the road, it will only get worse without some relief, said Karen Kress, director of transportation and planning for the Tampa Downtown Partnership.
Downtown employees, right now, need 1,400 parking spaces for regular monthly rentals, said Anne-Marie Ayers, a commercial real estate broker and first vice president at CBRE in the Bank of America building.
Find them and brokers like her can help fill downtown buildings to capacity.
“It’s important to get that number and figure out how to move people from the outlying areas. I think most of those [parking] spaces already exist,” Ayers said. “We need to look at what we already have and how we can use that to move people.”
It may not be so much about building more parking garages as about getting commuters to change their mindset, like getting them to walk, bike or take a shuttle to the office, even carpool with coworkers from a remote lot, Ayers said.
“We don’t have a parking problem,” she said. “We have a walking problem.”
Parking is a marketing issue, Ayers said.
It has to be addressed if the city wants to get more businesses to be in downtown.
The benefits of working downtown far outweigh the negative of having to walk a few blocks, she said. “I’ve been downtown for 20 years and I’ve walked — pregnant and carrying a heavy laptop. I know.”
Ayers is part of a movement by the Tampa Downtown Partnership and the city to try to resolve the issue.
A partnership Parking Task Force is looking at possible long-term solutions.
Task force members have already zeroed in on what could be a quick fix for at least some commuters.
There are both city and private lots along the outskirts of downtown Tampa with spaces to fill.
The issue is getting commuters to use them, then getting those drivers to their jobs.
The city’s “interstate lots” north of downtown between Scott and K streets under Interstate 275 have about 200 parking spaces available for monthly leasing, said Ocea Lattimore, director of logistics and assets management for the City of Tampa.
“A lot of people are looking for something closer to their office. We are trying to develop some park-and-ride options to make it more convenient for those who must park on the outskirts,” she said. Lattimore is working with the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority to see if it can modify its free In Towner trolley route to pick up and drop off at those perimeter lots.
Kress has obtained state and federal grants and is seeking private donations from downtown hotels and office towers to pay for eight to 10 electric six-seater carts to shuttle commuters from remote private parking lots to offices in the downtown core.
In addition to the city’s interstate parking area, there is space for new monthly rentals in the Channelside Parking Garage and in the WFLA, News Channel 8, parking garage on South Parker Street, Kress said.
“The fundraising would cover the cost of (cart) operations,” she said. “We should know by the end of March whether or not it will be a go. Our goal is to start service some time in May.”
“It’s a complex and exciting issue,” said Jeff Zampitella, who lives downtown and heads the partnership’s Parking Task Force, made up of business people, leasing agents, residents and others.
“It’s more or less an educational issue,” he said. “There is parking, but people want it for free. Right across the street from Skypoint, where I live, the Poe Garage sits half empty.
“Everybody needs something a little different,” Zampitella said. “Sometimes, the one solution hurts another group. It’s very complex. I do know right now commercial leasing is having a problem finding large blocks of leasable parking spaces.”
Zampitella, an airline pilot who says he spends half his time in Europe, also is a fan of getting people to walk farther to get to their offices.
“I see the results of a walkable community,” he said. “It’s frustrating. I ask somebody who doesn’t want to park remotely if they have a Fit Bit on. There is plenty of parking on the perimeter” and plenty of times of the year in central Florida when the weather is perfect for walking, he said.
Kress is also promoting other possible options for people who work downtown, including walking and the Coast Bike Share program that has successfully operated downtown for more than a year now.
One option already available that downtown employees have not taken advantage of is the vanpool program sponsored by the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority, or TBARTA.
“It’s growing,” said Senior Planner Michael Case. Just not downtown.
TBARTA, in a joint participation agreement with the Florida Department of Transportation, handles the van pool program, a bike buddy program and a carpool program to help people connect with rides. There even is a program for emergency rides home if a van pool participant has to work overtime.
“I think it would be a fantastic idea to get this going downtown,” Case said. “It’s a very viable strategy for increasing alternative transportation.”
TBARTA provides a $400 subsidy for the $1,000 monthly cost of the van, which covers insurance, maintenance and gas.
One volunteer drives the van and picks up other passengers at an agreed-upon location closest to where most in the group live. All but the driver split the $600 monthly fee. Most of the vehicles are Chevy Traverses, which seat eight people.
There are other groups, too, that are experiencing parking issues downtown, like retailers.
Frank Grebowski, owner of the European Wax Center on East Jackson Street, said keeping staff downtown is as much of a challenge as drawing customers. “I would hate to lose staff because they can’t find a reasonable parking spot.
“There are four entities that all need help: downtown retailers, the arts and sports community, the leasing agents that need blocks of parking for perspective clients and the residents,” Grebowski said. “They all have different needs, they are all valid and it’s difficult to find a solution that helps one without hindering another.”
Grebowski believes one answer for the retailers downtown would be for the city to buy and operate a central lot just for retail customers.
“We have to be able to prove that Tampa can support retail operations seven days a week,” he said. “It would be a really bad signal to other perspective retailers if we can’t.”
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The University of South Florida is joining the transportation think tank, too, with students preparing to study the downtown parking issue and try to find creative solutions.
Professor Stephen Neely, with the School of Public Affairs, said his students met with Kress last week to discuss a study on the perception of parking availability downtown and a project to measure capacity and usage at various times.
Each semester, Neely said, students in public administration and public management choose a community partner to create “something hands-on that can apply in the real world.”
If the Downtown Partnership is pleased with the studies the students do and the survey they propose, the students could continue working on the project into the next semester, he said.
“They will try to create a design the partnership and the (City-County) Planning Commission can implement to actually address some of these issues,” Neely said.
The development is coming, with Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik and his team preparing for $2 billion of projects downtown and businesses adding employees with the improving economy.
But all new growth comes with a price, said Jody Haneke, whose business, Haneke Design, is on East Tyler Street on the edge of downtown next to where a 23-story apartment tower is being built.
“It’s a bit brutal,” Haneke said. “Not only have they torn down the entire block, they are also tearing up the street and putting in new pipes. We have to park in a surface lot and walk next to a fence along the sidewalk to get to the office. It’s annoying and all that, but we are better off than some because we’re on an end of downtown where parking is less of an issue.”
Kress said she hopes the wellness campaign the partnership is promoting to get people walking, coupled with the shuttle carts it is trying to procure, will quiet the cry for more parking lots.
“I’ve been trying to put a positive spin on this but we are having big city parking problems,” Kress said. “This is the new normal As the downtown continues to be more vibrant and active, the demand for parking has gone up. You have to take the good with the bad.”
Using more premium land downtown for parking may not be the best answer, she said.
“When you think of yourself walking downtown, what would hold your interest? A bunch of parking lots or vibrant activity?”