Rightly or wrongly, Gainesville is infamous for roam towing and limited free parking. Are these policies hurting local businesses? If you want to raise the heat in a room in Gainesville, just bring up the issue of parking.
More than likely, someone in that room—or someone they know—has had their vehicle towed or received a parking ticket for violating city parking limits. And while some think strict parking policies are fine, others are sure to be angry.
Welcome to the Gainesville parking debate. On one side, property owners and city officials say ticketing and towing are essential to make sure the parking spots around apartments, offices and residences are available for legitimate users. On the other side, drivers and some merchants argue that ticketing and towing discourage people from shopping or dining in areas where they could be fined, hurting local businesses.
Regardless of who’s right, one thing is clear: Enforcing Gainesville’s parking rules is lucrative.
According to city records, 9,784 vehicles were towed last year. If you multiply that by the $78 minimum fee to get back a car, plus additional fees for arriving late at the lot or other towing company charges, that means roam towing generated more than $763,000 in 2010.
In addition the city’s 2012 budget is projecting that Gainesville will generate about $500,000 from parking fines.
So parking enforcement is big business in Gainesville, generating a great deal of cash for private contractors and for the city. But is it fair and does it, in the long run, discourage commercial?
Like Musical Chairs with Cars
With 50,000 students living on or near the University of Florida campus, many of whom own an automobile, it is inevitable that finding parking—especially close to desirable locations like the campus or downtown businesses— is a challenge for students and permanent residents alike.
So, many drivers resort to parking illegally.
This may seem trivial when one driver does it but if enough follow suit it creates problems for people who have legitimate rights to parking spots, such as apartment tenants, says Andy Hogshead, CEO of The Collier Companies, which operates 26 apartment communities in the city and uses roam towing to remove people who illegally park.
“Roam towing is unfortunately necessary to ensure the quality of life for our residents,” he says. “Our renters have a right to the spaces.”
Sally Wilson at SunLu Properties manages several properties including University Terrace, which has 51 units. She argues that towing helps her tenants too.
“Towing is protection for renters,” she says. “They complain [they need extra spaces] when they want friends over for a party, but our attitude is the friends should take the bus or walk. Tenants hate it but it’s for their benefit.”
Perhaps, but look at the other side of the issue, argues Nick Farah, who operates the 30-year-old Farah’s on the Avenue on West University Ave. The restaurant backs up to an alleyway that runs between his business and an apartment community. There are no parking spaces in front of his business. The only street spaces are across the four lanes of University Avenue, and those are shared with surrounding businesses.
For years, Farah’s lunch customers used a small number of the apartment community’s spots behind the restaurant. Then the apartment community started enforcing roam towing to protect its spots. That, combined with what Farah says were city actions to inhibit parking in the West University Ave. area, killed business.
“Lunch business went down 65 percent because customers couldn’t park where they wouldn’t get towed,” Farah says. “We tried negotiating with area landlords and sent employees outside to warn customers, but who can enjoy lunch and worry about being towed? Thank goodness for Bank of America, which lets us use part of its lot.”
Farah finally had to eliminate lunch service and now opens at 4pm. “In 30 years I’ve never seen it this bad. It centers around one [towing] company and it’s going to get worse,” Farah says.
Parking Issues Downtown
Roam towers also work areas Downtown, as do the city’s own parking enforcement officers.
In 2010, 1,359 vehicles were towed from the Downtown area, while more than 12,000 parking citations were issued.
Despite the large number of violations, some say the parking issue Downtown is less about a lack of spots and more about their locations.
The city has an 842-space parking garage west of Main Street and the McGurn Management Company runs a 410-car garage east of Main. Neither, according to a 2009 study by Rich & Associates which conducted research for the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency, is usually full. But that doesn’t matter because most consumers would rather park close to their destinations than in a garage, says Dave Burr, senior planner at Rich & Associates.
According to Rich & Associates’ findings, only half of the 6,490 available public and private spaces in the 75-block Downtown CRA zone were occupied at peak times. “Downtown parking is perceived to be inadequate because many of the most desirable free spaces are consistently occupied,” the study said.
Who’s in those desirable spots? Often it’s business owners and their employees, charges Trish Everett, who handles the city’s parking enforcement operations.
“I call it the employee shuffle,” she says. “Employees set the alarm in their computers and run out to feed meters or move cars every two hours. Talk about lost productivity!”
Parking issues Downtown also are a matter of sight lines, maintains Rich & Associates’ Burr. He says the view in Gainesville is that if a destination is out of sight, if people can’t see the entrance, even if it’s just around the corner, they think it’s too far.
But that’s the point, argues former city commissioner Tony Domenech. “In our hot environment there are few places proximate to desirable destinations. If there isn’t observable parking, customers [go elsewhere],” he says, adding “Parking in Gainesville is business un-friendly.”
Bottom line: Do the city’s Downtown parking policies hurt sales? Billy Scheel who owns Harry’s Seafood Bar & Grill, Mark’s US Prime, Lillian’s Music Store and Vellos Brick Street Grill, doesn’t think so, though he admits he had to create his own solution.
“Parking has largely been addressed by our complementary valet service,” Scheel says. “Parking was a problem and remains a perceived problem, but with valet parking, downtown Gainesville is very successful.”
Midtown Parking Issues
Parking near the UF campus is clearly an issue, with roam towers actively scouting apartment communities, residential streets and business parking lots there.
One small lot clearly leads the way in roam towing. At the 30 space UF Plaza lot at 1702 West University Ave., 1,434 vehicles were towed in 2010, according to city records. That’s 15 percent of the total for the entire city.
The Rich & Associates parking study of the College Park/University Heights neighborhoods confirmed a need for more public parking in that area. Rich & Associates counted 2,915 spaces in College Park, 2,461 on-street and 454 off-street. In University Heights, Rich found a mix for 4,746 spaces with 4,172 being off-street and 574 on-street.
That works out to an estimated 1.95 spaces per 1,000 sq. ft. for “general business use” during daytime hours and 1.06 spaces per bedroom per apartment.
Mike Case, who owns O!O Garden Grill behind The Swamp Restaurant believes there’s plenty of parking in the area, but people who park illegally in lots or on marked streets and then go to class or wander away – perhaps to Gator football games – might certainly get towed. “There’s paid parking in the fenced and paved lot owned by the Catholic Church,” he says, and it’s rarely full.
However, Steven Kay, who owns the nearby Designer Greens and the new Kay Bros. BBQ, argues that parking definitely is a problem. “If we had more parking it would be better for business,” Kay says. But he adds, “It is what it is. You know that when you sign a lease here.”
Kay’s business relies on walk-up customers which, along the West University/1st Avenue corridor principally means students. “People who drive don’t want to hassle with the parking situation or the student crowds,” he says. But, he says there are parking areas near each of his businesses. Drivers just nees to circle the area a couple times and wait for a free spot.
It is best to “avoid peak hours,” Kay says.
Spreading the (Bad) Word
Regardless of whether you see parking as a perceived or real problem, it clearly is an issue that makes people angry.
And it will likely continue to do so. “There will always be [parking] issues because of the students,” Gainesville Police Department Court Liaison Melyssa Henagan argues.
And those same students are helping spread negative opinions of Gainesville’s parking-towing issues though social media. UF grad Chris Myers, whose car was towed when he lived in University Heights, started “The Alliance Against Roam Towing” on Facebook.com. There is also “Gainesville Residents for the Abolition of Roam Towing” that recently had 235 members.
Despite of the anger and complaints, Hogshead says, “Parking has always been a problem in Gainesville and it always will be.”
But will the solution always be to tow or fine?