Task force tackles downtown parking

Task force staff representative Leah Christian: “There are a lot of conflicts on the task force, I think, a lot of divergent perspectives and not a lot of agreement on where we want to go."

With the housing freeze set to end this December and parking still a major concern in downtown Columbia, Second Ward councilman and co-chair of the city’s parking task force Michael Trapp said the group is still working on solutions.

The freeze includes land within a mile radius of an area bounded on the north by Elm Street, the west by Providence Road, the south by Stadium Drive and the east by Hitt Street.

The Parking and Traffic Management Task Force group was created in July in response to a parking audit that took place in fall 2015. City of Columbia Staff Liaison for the force Leah Christian said the purpose of the group is to analyze current issues with parking problems.

Christian said changes as a result of the recommendations will not go into effect until spring 2017.

The 15-member task force represents diverse interests such as businesses, citizens and students. She said these various representations have led to a lot of the delay in action.

“There are a lot of conflicts on the task force,” Christian said. "A lot of divergent perspectives and not a lot of agreement on where we want to go."

Two MSA representatives were also selected to help with the process.

Amy Wasowicz was hit by a car crossing the street at the intersection of College Avenue and Rollins Street during her freshman year. Since then, she has been an active MSA senator and was selected to be a part of the task force.

"We are a car-driven society, and it makes it incredibly dangerous for pedestrians, especially when they’re trying to go in a downtown area or around campus,” Wasowicz said. “It’s hard to do that when you’re afraid of being hit by a car."

She said she wants to represent students’ points of view.

“I would love to get more input from students to know that I am accurately representing their interests,” Wasowicz said.

Currently, the main focus of the task force is the adequacy of downtown parking. Trapp said that the group has started making recommendations to the planning and zoning commission.

One such recommendation would affect the minimum parking requirements for new housing projects.

Originally, developers were not required to have a certain number of parking spaces, but the council passed an interim rule which included a reduced parking requirement of one parking space per four bedrooms. The task force recommended that this rule be continued but that new developers should not be allowed to meet parking minimums by contracting with a publicly funded parking garage.

The task force also requested a minor adjustment: that the parking spaces be located within a quarter mile of the building.

“Someone from the disabilities commission pointed out that's not going to be helpful for someone who has a wheelchair,” Trapp said. “So we are recommending that for every accessible unit.”

Christian said centralized parking would be a good way to deal with the problem. She said developers can pay into it, and it reduces drivers on the road.

“Centralized public parking is much better than individualized public parking downtown. It’s really good for the pedestrian environment,” Christian said. "People can park one time and walk anywhere they want to walk.”

Trapp also said there needs to be a separation between the costs of parking and housing.

"What I think we need to do is separate out parking from housing,” Trapp said. “You shouldn’t have to buy them as a set.”

Trapp said centralized public parking is a more efficient use of space because it is able to accommodate businesses in the daytime and residences in the evening.

“If each person has to build their own parking, that’s just wasteful and doesn’t make sense with our most valuable land in the community,” Trapp said.

Currently, developer Catalyst Design Works is blocking Fifth, Sixth and Seventh streets at no cost. A fee for developers blocking streets was proposed for the first time in a June session. Trapp said the council is currently ceasing any development until a policy is put into place. He said the council has not figured out an amount for the fee or what will be done with the money if a fee is created.

Trapp also said in order to make that recommendation, the task force needs to conduct more research on parking infrastructure downtown. He added they need to conduct an audit to figure out what kind of developments are needed and would benefit the downtown area. The process will last about six months.

Christian said the group plans to survey citizens and look into a license plate recognition system to understand and resolve the issues with parking and parking enforcement.

Trapp said it is important that citizens understand the importance of student housing.

“If we don’t accommodate it, if there’s no designated student housing then students are going to rent out of the regular market,” Trapp said. “It's going to hurt housing affordability.”

Christian said although the task force is set to end in December, it will most likely be extended.

Edited by Kyra Haas | khaas@themaneater.com

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