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Sarasota Thursday, Jan. 10, 2019 5 months ago

City, St. Armands leaders sort out paid parking plans

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Officials and merchants are working to address lingering concerns about the imminent activation of parking meters.
by: David Conway Deputy Managing Editor

St. Armands Circle is just weeks away from the implementation of a new paid parking program, but some details remain unclear as city officials work with area merchants on lingering concerns.

Paid parking has been a contentious topic within the shopping district for years, even after St. Armands stakeholders endorsed the concept in 2015 to help fund a new 484-space parking garage. Although some businesses remain worried about the possibility of paid parking scaring away potential visitors, concerns have more recently focused on how it will affect Circle employees.

In November, during a meeting with city Parking Manager Mark Lyons, St. Armands merchants voiced strong opposition to the prospect of employees having to pay $20 per month for a permit to park in the district. At the time, Lyons had expressed a belief the rate was a fair price, noting a similar program was in effect downtown.

Since then, however, sustained merchant concern has led the city to re-evaluate its position. On Monday, Deputy City Manager Marlon Brown said the city was in the process of brokering an agreement with St. Armands businesses on employee parking.

Diana Corrigan, executive director of the St. Armands Circle Association, offered some insight Wednesday into what such an agreement might look like. At a St. Armands Business Improvement District meeting, Corrigan said the city was moving to reduce employee parking permits to $10 a month.

She said the change was an acknowledgement that St. Armands businesses had already made a financial contribution to the construction of the garage through a special tax levied on Circle properties.

Through a spokesman, the city affirmed discussions are ongoing about a reduction in the cost of the parking permits for Circle employees. The city said no details are finalized and declined to make another staff member available for comment on the timing of the decision to revisit the permit costs or Corrigan’s characterization of the changes.

Mixed feelings

Throughout the Circle, outlooks differ on whether paid parking will ultimately be beneficial. Workers and business owners were more united in their perspective on employee parking, which they characterized as a serious concern.

Terri Ludovicy, an employee at The Ancient Olive, said the parking permit costs were such a big issue on St. Armands Circle because of the degree to which the area is dependent on retail business.

That’s not a high-paying business for workers, Ludovicy said. Given the other challenges lower-income employees are facing — particularly in Sarasota — she said the prospect of another expense is particularly draining.

“There’s no affordable housing,” Ludovicy said. “People are not paid a living wage.”

Rafael Miccio, owner of Venezia restaurant, offered a similar outlook. He didn’t have a strong stance on the prospect of implementing paid parking, but he was firm in his belief that workers shouldn’t have to pay.

He said it would not only be challenging for workers who have to pay for the permits, but it would also become more challenging for stores and restaurants to fill open positions.

“Some employees, they make $10 an hour, and then they have to pay for parking?” Miccio said. “It’s going to be hard to bring them out here.”

Since October, St. Armands leaders have been focused on promoting a positive message about the incoming paid parking program, set to take effect when the Adams Street garage opens in late January or early February. At Wednesday’s BID meeting, Corrigan distributed information on parking the city prepared for merchants to share with visitors.

Some critics remain worried about scaring away customers. Lyra Neff, manager at Todd Alan Gallery, said she was particularly upset because St. Armands will be the only district in the city with paid parking until meters are installed downtown later this year.

Other business owners and employees are more accepting. Caitlin Jones, an employee at FantaSea, said she didn’t think visitors to the Circle would be dissuaded from paying to park. Some suggested tourists in particular would be unfazed by the tiered pricing structure.

Those who felt positively about paid parking said they appreciated the accompanying influx of new parking spaces via the garage.

“At least now you can find a spot,” Jones said.

There are other ongoing issues associated with the introduction of paid parking into St. Armands. In response to concerns about parking spilling into the neighborhoods surrounding the Circle, the city plans to install one-hour time restriction signs on residential streets.

And although Corrigan complimented city officials for their responsiveness to merchant input, she still hopes the city will consider delaying the implementation of paid parking for a week or two after the opening of the garage. St. Armands leaders may be optimistic, but they still want to pursue opportunities to elevate everyone’s comfort level regarding paid parking.

“I think customers will be happy with the meters,” Corrigan said. “It’s all going to be a learning curve. It’s all new.”

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