As West Palm grows, city has ideas to make downtown parking easier

Dec 12, 2017
Mark Freistedt
West Palm Beach has five parking garages but the city contols only 18 percent of downtown parking spaces, with the rest in private hands. (Staff graphic)

As much as 20 percent of downtown traffic is caused by cars circling for open parking spaces, according to Deputy City Administrator Scott Kelly.

Here’s another fun fact: Despite the fact that downtown parking spaces are at a premium, two full floors of the public garage at Clematis Street and Sapodilla Avenue are reserved for cars taken as evidence in criminal cases. The city stores vehicles for the entire terms of people who are incarcerated, in the event they appeal — even if they’re in for 30 years, Kelly said.

Those are among the challenges faced by a city more crowded by the day, as hundreds of new apartments come on line in a downtown that city officials are trying to make more attractive to visitors and residents alike.

WEST PALM READERS: Sign up for The Post’s weekly West Palm Beach newsletter here

A parking study has recommended a variety of ways to free-up spaces, from charging more at meters closer to busy Clematis Street, charging past 7 p.m., and encouraging condos to share vacant garage spaces for public parking. The research is part of a series of transportation studies, on downtown driving, bicycling, walking and livability.

“We want to reduce cruising, and make it easy and convenient to find a place to park,” Kelly said at a mayor-city commission update Monday morning.

During events, like SunFest, the study recommends charging more for garages close to the action, to encourage more people to park farther away, while also encouraging private garages to open for overflow public parking, he said.

During business hours, to make more spaces available without scaring off business through heavy ticketing, changing enforcement strategies is among the parking study’s recommendations. That might mean less-expensive tickets for first-time offenders, while hitting habitual scofflaws hard, Kelly said.

“We don’t want people to have a bad experience. We want to be perceived as being friendly and helpful, to people, not like ‘we gotcha.’”

An effort will be made to redistribute parking demand downtown. The Evernia and Sapodilla garages tend to be packed, for example, while the city’s Clematis Street garage, Howard Park lot and other sites have a greater percentage of vacancies. One solution might be to give people incentives to park in garages away from downtown, and to have “reserve parking rates” where people are charged more for parking in prime spaces near shops, Kelly said.

“We want to increase availability for visitors. We don’t want visitors to go away frustrated,” he said.

In the next few months, the city plans to move to “demand parking,” in which prices vary based on demand for a space. Shoppers are willing to pay more to be closer to their destination, valuing convenience over pricing, he said.

The city also needs to rethink how delivery trucks load and unload, to find ways they can do so without double-parking and blocking traffic, he said. That could mean restricting delivery hours or finding alternative spots for trucks to use, Kelly said.

One way to free more spaces downtown would be to move the police impound lot to cheaper real estate, farther away. The county, for example, stores their impounded vehicles in Belle Glade.

Kelly pledged to reach out to downtown merchants and others to bring them up to speed on the prospective parking solutions and to solicit their input. “We need to have a lot more outreach,” he said.