TAMPA — If you've ever played Tetris, the puzzle game where you frantically slide interlocking shapes around to fill space as efficiently as possible, you know what it's like to be a parking valet on a weekend night on South Howard Avenue.
Starting at happy hour, every empty parking space in the SoHo district gets filled with cars.
In some cases, valets park them two deep in the same stall, also known as double-stacking, to expand the capacity of a lot. In others, they use spaces rented from doctors' offices. In both cases, the valets are breaking city rules, which ban double-stacking and using non-commercial property for restaurant and bar parking.
So far, however, city officials have looked the other way.
“Our enforcement is complaint based,” said planning director Cathy Coyle. “If a valet doesn't create some type of public issue, the city doesn't do much.”
In the short run, this off-the-books solution is working for most businesses and their customers. But in some cases it is stalling pending expansion plans. And in the long run, it raises an issue for an emerging entertainment district on the order of Ybor City.
Will SoHo's parking problems threaten future development there?
“That's a good question,” said Councilman Harry Cohen, whose South Tampa district includes SoHo. “People so obviously want to be in that area.”
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Today, city officials don't even know where the majority of valet-parked cars are going in SoHo. Unless a company needs a special exemption from the city's parking requirements, a valet contract between the restaurant or bar and another property owner falls outside the city's control, Coyle said.
Asked to provide off-site parking contracts for more than a dozen bars and restaurants lining South Howard, Coyle produced three — The DrYnk, Yard of Ale and SoHo Saloon. Two other businesses — The SoHo Backyard and Green Lemon — got permission from Tampa City Council to settle for just half the parking city rules require.
In most other cases, the businesses meet the city's parking requirements because they're operating under old rules from more than a decade ago. Those old rules let them get by with considerably less parking than the current ones.
If that's not enough parking, bar owners have to find more of their own.
Barry O'Connor, owner of MacDinton's and Yard of Ale, pays Safeway Valet thousands of dollars a month to park cars for him. His contracts give him access to 280 extra parking spaces around SoHo. That includes office parking lots on South Armenia and on Westland that fall outside the city's rules for parking.
O'Connor said he needed to get the extra parking after the city reserved on-street parking for residents six years ago.
O'Connor said those off-site contracts have painted MacDinton's into a corner. The bar can't expand or make other changes that would bring it under the new parking rules because then it would have to find spaces that fit the city's new rules — spaces that likely don't exist.
Safeway's leases with Yard of Ale, The DrYnk and SoHo Saloon show the company is using businesses all over the neighborhood to store cars. In some cases, the same lots are cited in multiple contracts.
“That's part of our job,” Safeway vice president Ryan Flaherty said, “to find stuff we can use exclusively.”
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Flaherty hopes to squeeze some parking out of the garages now going up with new residential projects — something city rules also ban. Then there's the elephant in the heart of SoHo: the 160 spaces above the Publix Greenwise grocery store.
When the Greenwise building was under discussion a half-dozen years ago, the developer offered to lease the city its parking after hours — but only if it was on the ground floor. City planners, who were eager to create an inviting streetscape, balked at that proposal.
Since then, Publix has declined to lets it space be used for after-hours parking. Signs in the Greenwise garage say no parking between 11 p.m. and 6 a.m.
Councilman Cohen said SoHo's parking problems have attracted potential “private sector solutions.” He declined to say what that meant.
He said he still hopes to find a way to relieve some of SoHo's problems with public transit, possibly by shuttling partiers to SoHo from parking outside the district. Any solution needs to come sooner rather than later, he said.
“Asking people to tolerate dysfunction ad infinitum, that's a pretty bold request,” he said.
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City parking rules have hamstrung attempts to turn The Other Side, an antique store at Howard and Azeele Street into a restaurant.
For a quarter-century, the store has operated out of a former house with minimal parking. As a restaurant, it would need more than 74 parking spaces. It has two.
Mark Bentley, the attorney working on converting The Other Side, said his clients have tried to strike a deal with the city to reduce the restaurant's capacity and cut its parking requirement to 46.
He has shown the city parking lots nearby on Platt Street and Cleveland Street that he says would meet the city's requirements — with one exception: There would be a bit of overlap in the late afternoon as the existing business winds down for the day. That's been enough for the city to deny the redevelopment so far.
The city and the developers have been negotiating a deal under a state law that encourages local governments to bend their rules in favor of property owners. The city allowed a similar overlap for the SoHo Saloon to settle a federal lawsuit the owner brought against the city after he was denied an alcoholic beverage permit, Bentley argues.
Bentley is asking to have a special magistrate resolve the case.
Bentley, who is also suing the city to block it from enforcing its noise ordinance in SoHo, has proposed an ordinance that would legalize many of the rule-bending measures the valet company uses to accommodate the SoHo weekend throngs.
“If these guys weren't using all these bootleg lots, it wouldn't work,” Bentley said.
Coyle's office, at the urging of city council members, is already working on zoning changes that would legalize some of what goes on in SoHo's valet lots, including double-stacking. The changes would also let valet companies park up to a quarter-mile away instead of 1,000 feet and require business owners to show every year that their parking leases are valid.
Coyle said the rule changes should go to the city council later this summer.
Coyle said she's also exploring ways the city can expand on-street parking on the side streets feeding into South Howard. In some cases, the city owns more land than it uses for traffic. That extra space could be developed as metered parking, Coyle said.
“We're not going to be creating thousands of parking spaces,” Coyle said. “But we will be creating supplemental parking.”
So far, Coyle's on-street parking plan is still in the drawing-board phase. Whether it goes forward will depend on two questions:
“Is it going to be worth the expenditure?” Coyle said. “How many spaces are we going to get out of it?”