It’s not as exciting as a new basketball arena, as entertaining as a distillery district, or as pleasant as a downtown water feature, but business owners, developers and city officials agree that parking is a crucial determining factor in the success or failure of the city’s core.
By no means is it a new problem. Downtown parking has been the subject of debate and criticism for decades. Some people hold that it is simply a problem of perception on the part of today’s driving consumers, who have been conditioned by the growing number of expansive suburban surface lots. Others see an increasingly confusing, inconsistent and inconvenient network of downtown parking options in need of a complete overhaul. All agree, however, that downtown Lexington cannot support a thriving retail sector in the long term unless it develops better parking solutions.
Debbie Long, owner of Dudley’s on Short, had some sleepless nights after she decided to move her restaurant from Dudley Square to its current location on downtown Short Street. One nagging question kept her up the most: Where were her customers going to park?
Suburban shoppers have grown accustomed to parking within view of their destinations, Long said. She was initially concerned that her diners might not be comfortable with downtown’s tucked-away private lots. But Long soon discovered that the concept of downtown parking wasn’t an inhibiting factor for her longtime patrons.
“We found that my guests really adapted easily to our downtown parking,” Long said.
According to Long, it’s not the concept of paying for parking or the short walk to the restaurant that creates a problem for her patrons. After two years in the downtown core, Long’s experiences with parking boil down to one overarching mantra: Parking should not be a complicated process.
“We’re thrilled with the growth in businesses downtown,” Long said, “but we know as retailers that we’ve got to provide customers with the best service they can have, and that starts from the minute they drive down here.”
The ticket-dispensing pay-and-display stations for on-street parking that were located outside her business, for instance, had not been as convenient for guests to use as traditional parking meters — especially in inclement weather. Payment procedures at nearby unmanned private lots were proving to be confusing and time-consuming for patrons, with inconvenient lines at payment machines during busier hours, she said.
“To me the key to an urban setting is to make the parking easy,” Long said. “There is parking available, but it has to be easy for our guests.”
In addition to being as convenient as possible, parking also needs to be easily accessible and readily apparent, according to Renee Jackson, president of the Downtown Lexington Corp.
While surface parking lots are present downtown, it can be difficult to determine which ones are available for public parking.
“There is a lot of confusion about which lots are public,” Jackson said. “Even though they may say ‘parking,’ it’s not clear if it’s just for monthly parkers or if it’s for the public.”
That kind of confusion may contribute to seemingly illogical downtown parking patterns, as shown by one experience related by Jeff Fugate, the Lexington Downtown Development Authority president.
“I came down for the Thriller Parade. It was kind of rainy that night, and they had 12,000 people in attendance. ... I parked in the Transit Center Garage, which is across the street from where the festivities were occurring,” Fugate said. “I was one of 12 cars in a 700-car garage.”
He added, “That was free, by the way.”
Unpredictable pricing is a common complaint in downtown Lexington, where the rules and the costs commonly change during special events such as University of Kentucky basketball games and popular concerts. Poorly lighted parking facilities have also made some of the parking that is available less appealing for more safety-oriented consumers. But some still believe downtown’s parking problems are primarily the result of negative assumptions and lack of experience.
To encourage people to live, work and play downtown, said Ken Michul, director and executive vice president of leasing, brokerage and operations for The Webb Cos., parking must be seen as safe, predictable, accessible and affordable.
“Great strides have already been made in this regard and plans are now being implemented by both the public and private sectors to make it even better,” Michul said. “With that being said, some who don’t frequent or are not familiar with downtown still perceive downtown parking to be inconvenient, generally unavailable and expensive. As one who has worked downtown for many years and is very familiar with downtown parking, I can tell you that this simply isn’t true.”
“I think there is a perception that there is nowhere to park, that you can never find a spot,” Jackson said. “I would say that five or six years ago that was probably the truth, as far as on-street [parking] goes. But since the Parking Authority came into being in 2008, I think there is an availability of on-street.”
But while the Parking Authority has greatly improved the turnover in on-street parking that downtown businesses need to encourage patronage, its new technologies have received mixed reviews. The pay-and-display stations installed in and near downtown were intended as an added convenience for both parking patrons and enforcement staff, according to LexPark Executive Director Gary Means, but business owners in some areas, such as on Chevy Chase’s Euclid Avenue and along Short Street, have requested their removal.
“At the time [when parking rates were increasing], it was a solution to ... give people the option of how to pay,” Means said. “People don’t usually have more than a quarter or two in their pocket, and so expecting people to have four quarters on them to pay for an hour was kind of a lot to ask.”
The adjustment to the pay-and-display stations has been smooth in the UK area, Means said, and the system has been popular among UK students.
“However, in downtown there’s been a lot of pushback ... for a lot of reasons,” Means said. “It still has been a culture shift. We have found it is really difficult to make happen.”
Pursuing the quick fixes
There are immediate concerns that can be improved relatively easily, according to those with a vested interest in downtown parking issues. In some cases, steps are already underway to address them.
Long asked LexPark to remove the pay-and-display stations outside Dudley’s on Short and replace them with more traditional car-side meters, and the agency has already made the change. The individual meters are solar-powered, accept credit cards and also offer a pay-by-phone feature.
“LexPark heard that, and they are doing something about it,” she said. “We were thrilled that they listened to us and they responded.”
LexPark’s budget is generated solely through both parking fees and fines, which have grown substantially in recent years.
“On-street used to generate around $400,000; now it’s up to about $1.5 million [since LexPark began operations and enforcement],” Means said. “We can take some of that surplus and put it into these garages, which is what we’re doing.”
In addition to making improvements in city-owned parking garages, Means said a group of parking operators led by LexPark is now meeting regularly to discuss parking issues, and they have agreed to install universal parking signage that will feature a blue background with an encircled white letter P. Many of the new signs will also feature a tote board on the bottom to indicate the number of open spaces in the garage, he said. Private operators will also be able to incorporate the symbol with their own company name or logo.
“We have pretty much all the major owners or operators of downtown parking around the table,” Means said. “Everyone has realized we need to come up with something that tells the suburbanites and folks that aren’t used to coming downtown [to] look for this sign: it’s public parking.”
The new signage will be phased in as budgets allow, Means said. Cities such as Cincinnati have required parking lot operators to adhere to established standards for customer service, lighting levels and parking rates in order to utilize universal signage. In Lexington, Means said, the effort has been more of a ground-up approach to improving the visibility of downtown parking, and it hasn’t required any governmental ordinance. However, the group is still discussing how the new signage will be funded.
“Our big thing right now is to go after low-hanging fruit, and that is to help people find parking,” Means said. “We may take it another step and say, ‘If you see this kind of sign, it means you won’t have to pay more than a certain amount per hour.’ That’s a second phase we’ll start to look at. Right now it’s get everybody on board and get these signs started.”
In terms of better lighting in lots and garages, Benjamin Steffen, general manager for Central Parking Lexington, said that his company has been making improvements, including doubled the lighting in its lots earlier this year and changing the type of bulb used to a brighter variety.
“We’ve really taken a real hard look at what we’re doing with lighting and moved it around so it made a little more sense,” Steffen said. “[We’ve] used that brighter, cleaner, white light that just makes everything seem more inviting, but at the same time doubled it.”
LexPark has also been working with a new mobile app called ParkMe, which can communicate the rates for the parking authority’s four parking garages — and eventually the open space count — in real time.
To allow customers to avoid any lines at payment machines, Central Parking plans to have a pay-by-phone feature in place on its lots in time for the opening of Thursday Night Live, Steffen said.
According to Andrew Barlow, regional manager for Central Parking, such conveniences are quickly becoming the norm for the industry.
“Looking further into the future, more and more places are going to get away from equipment all together,” Barlow said. “You’re going to see garage systems that operate in the cloud, basically.”
Parking’s place in downtown development
From the perspective of developers and real estate professionals who operate in the downtown sector, it is difficult to overestimate the importance of parking in determining the economic potential of downtown Lexington.
“Parking is arguably the most important issue to the success of retail, office, restaurant, housing and appropriate urban planning,” said Phil Holoubek, developer of Main & Rose and the Nunn Lofts.
Holoubek cited a study conducted in Columbus, Ohio, that determined most downtown commuters would willingly walk only 800 feet to get from their parking space to their desk.
“Not to the front door of their office, but to their desk,” Holoubek said. “So you can draw a circle around any property and figure out how many parking spaces are within 600 feet of that building and then determine if there is enough supply to meet demand.”
If the available supply doesn’t meet demand, Holoubek logically concluded, then prices for parking could be expected to rise. The rising cost of available parking would make a location less cost-competitive for employers in terms of rent and the expense of office space, which could, in turn, reduce the building’s value and the resulting tax revenues.
“So, there’s a large economic impact even to the public sector when there’s not enough parking in place,” Holoubek said.
Real estate activity downtown is picking up, according to Ken Michul, but an issue like parking has the potential to stall that progress just as it is gaining speed.
“I’ve never seen more interest in downtown for office, retail and entertainment space, especially from Limestone west,” Michul said. “To keep the momentum going, to ensure that our existing downtown businesses remain successful and that we continue to bring new businesses and residences downtown, parking has to continue to be readily available and affordable.”
Parking came into play recently in three of his company’s largest office deals in recent years — all of which could have opted for the suburbs, he said. In each case, the business initially wanted a single parking option that could accommodate all of their employees. In the end, however, Michul said, “We met their needs by providing spaces in attached garages, with the balance of needed spaces within one block from the respective building at a more attractive cost structure.”
Michul said the Lexington Center Corp. has also been very cooperative in helping to meet such parking challenges, and his company also recently purchased a lot at the corner of High and Broadway to meet the parking needs of tenants in its own buildings, as well as other nearby businesses. Such assets and cooperative relationships are key when potential tenants are scouting out their downtown options.
“Just last week we landed a large tenant with a significant parking requirement that operates three shifts,” Michul said. “Their parking need was met in the building garage and on our High and Broadway lot. Since the LFC [Lexington Financial Center] garage is lightly used at night and on weekends, Central Parking was helpful in arranging parking there for the second and third shift.”
In the hyper-competitive world of retail, with brick-and-mortar establishments fighting constantly against the loss of ground to online competitors with lower overhead, convenient parking has become an absolute necessity.
“Retail is a fragile-use category in today’s Amazon world,” said Robert Wagoner, a retired Lexington retail architect and developer. (See commentary on page 24.) “Convenient parking is one reason retail left downtown and produced the glaring holes, now called surface parking lots and blank storefronts.”
And making the best of an old parking system is not enough to build a vibrant downtown core, Wagoner said. In a new competitive landscape, we need to entertain new parking strategies and infrastructure solutions.
“In order to recruit new retail, we need a plan that includes convenient curbside parking coupled with a clustering of complementary retail uses,” Wagoner said. “We have never tried the two together.”
Catering to downtown customers
With the national economy showing some signs of recovery and increasing restaurant and entertainment activity in Lexington’s downtown sector, some believe there is no time like the present to start planning for more substantial changes in our downtown parking infrastructure.
Proponents hold that parking improvement initiatives ranging from the strategic construction of new parking garages to the use of angular street parking could be used to leverage new development, make downtown a more attractive destination and entice more retail businesses — both large and small — to locate downtown.
Wagoner has spent more than 20 years helping to engineer some of the city’s more successful suburban developments, including Palomar Center, Regency Center, Tates Creek Centre and Lexington Green. There are many development strategies, he said, particularly as related to vehicular traffic flow, that suburban malls and shopping centers have been using to their advantage for decades. With some adjustments, Wagoner believes that those same strategies could be used to make the drive downtown less daunting for today’s car-dependent consumers.
“The elusive downtown customer is complex and requires additional study, but one thing rings clear: when this customer comes downtown, they do not walk, bus or bike — they drive,” Wagoner said. “And when they do, they are challenged by the multiple shortcomings of our disconnected parking systems, producing confusion, congestion and circumvention.”
Wagoner’s ideal plan for Lexington is one similar to the design of Greenville, S.C. The plan filters incoming traffic from key corridors such as Midland Avenue and High Street in a natural way to open, efficient, accessible parking structures tucked behind Main Street. It encourages more welcoming storefronts and a pedestrian-friendly atmosphere, particularly on the city’s main thoroughfare. It also establishes walkable, well-landscaped sidewalks throughout downtown, with ample angled parking to serve more in-and-out retail clientele.
Too often, according to Wagoner, downtown parking deteriorates into an urbanite version of survival of the fittest, where the choice spaces are dominated by those with downtown experience who are the most familiar with the terrain. As a result, newcomers are left endlessly circling blocks in confusion and frustration. This discourages repeat visits and the vital expansion of downtown’s customer base. It would also explain why opinions about the ease and availability of downtown parking can differ so widely among Lexingtonians.
“We learned the lesson long ago in suburbia, to incorporate lease language requiring employees to park in designated remote areas,” Wagoner said. “In downtown, we must reassess current ‘reserved space’ locations, while balancing the politics of doing so. New customer-oriented spaces are a part of the idea.”
Similarly, other cities have implemented limited free parking in their downtown areas to attract and encourage more of those first-time and short-time downtown visitors. But, as many are quick to point out, although it might help to level the playing field with suburban shopping destinations that have ample open parking lots, free parking never comes for free. Even suburban malls must pay for the land that they use to provide parking, Fugate pointed out. And in addition to losing the revenue stream that comes from parking fees, which can be used to improve existing parking structures and possibly help to fund new ones, such free parking would also bring the added cost of enforcement, which would be necessary to ensure ample turnover and availability.
While free on-street parking is better than paid parking for encouraging downtown commerce, time limits on parking in a downtown setting are even more essential, Holoubek said, and that requires enforcement.
“Enforcement costs money,” Holoubek said. “Many cities are in a position where they can’t afford to provide enforcement unless they collect revenue from the parking. We need to get to a place where we can provide the free parking and the enforcement.”
In most cases in other cities, that enforcement would require an additional government allocation, Means said. Means added that most transitory downtown visitors typically conduct their business in less than two hours, and free parking would result in a significant reduction in the city’s parking revenue.
“When I observe one of these other cities trying to do free parking on the street, and I’m talking about cities with healthy downtowns like Greenville, the city, the council, the decisionmakers, have obviously come up with a way to allocate funds to fund this,” Means said. “You have to enforce it or it will be abused.”
The need for new city-owned garages
Ultimately, on-street parking changes and improvement of the city’s current piecemeal layout of surface lots and aging structures cannot address the needs of future development.
According to Holoubek, the new development that could result from public investment in newly established parking infrastructure is not hypothetical; it is waiting in the wings for the city to act.
“There are plans on the drawing board for projects throughout our downtown,” Holoubek said. “That said, for some of these projects to become reality, regardless of where they are downtown, publicly financed parking is going to have to be part of the equation.”
Holoubek has been lobbying for years for a new parking garage on the block where he owns property at Main and Vine streets, across from his Main + Rose development. Holoubek’s plan for a large mixed-use structure on the site has hinged on a publicly funded response to the dearth of city-owned parking facilities on the east side of downtown.
The construction of a private parking structure can significantly increase the cost of downtown residential development, Holoubek said, and the expense is typically too high for a developer to bear the risk competitively. The construction of a new parking garage would cost roughly $15,000 to $20,000 per space created, Holoubek estimated. That would add from $15,000 to $40,000 to the price of every new residential condo.
While the expense of a publicly financed parking garage is difficult to justify in terms of the direct revenue generated through parking fees, the public investment enables a host of economic benefits for the city, Holoubek said.
“If a parking garage is built,” Holoubek said, “it may allow a multistory, mixed-use project to be built. And that will generate everything from additional property taxes to payroll and occupational taxes. There are a lot of multipliers that determine whether a parking garage is beneficial.”
Public investment in parking infrastructure to support downtown development may seem like an indulgence when compared to the typical suburban project, where developers are expected to foot their own parking bill. But suburban developments also require new roads, sewer pipes and other public sector infrastructure investments that aren’t necessary for downtown projects. And multi-story downtown projects fit more square-footage on an acre than do single-story suburban buildings, bringing a higher rate of return.
Holoubek isn’t the only one who sees a need for more parking solutions to support development. Stan Harvey, principle, Urban Collage, and planning consultant for the Rupp Arena Arts and Entertainment District said the answer may lie in more creative public-private enterprises.
“I think the key would be to be very strategic with the construction of new parking decks to support new development and public parking downtown,” Harvey said. “And I think the key strategy would be to make it dispersed, not overly concentrated in one particular area, and to, as much as possible, solicit public-private partnerships that provide both public parking and private parking within the same facility and that instigate new development.”
It’s a lot to digest. Perhaps the time has come to corral all of these moving parts and discuss as a community whether and how to proceed.
An opportunity comes on March 13 when the Downtown Lexington Corp. hosts a discussion on downtown parking issues moderated by Business Lexington’s Tom Martin and featuring many of the individuals who commented for this article. Details are below.
Business Lexington's Erik A. Carlson contributed to this article.
Downtown parking panel discussion
DLC’s Discuss Downtown, a quarterly information series on downtown issues, will host a panel discussion on downtown parking.
Date: Wednesday, March 13
Time: 7:30-8 a.m. networking, 8-9 a.m. program
Moderator: Tom Martin, editor, Business Lexington
Panelists: Mark Fallon, Jeffery R. Anderson Real Estate; Phil Holoubek, Lexington’s Real Estate Company and downtown developer; Renee Jackson, president, Downtown Lexington Corporation; Gary Means, executive director, Lexington Fayette Parking Authority; Robert Wagoner, retired developer
101 E. Vine St., 3rd Floor Conference Room
Recommended Parking: On the street or in the Transit Center Garage
For more information or to RSVP, contact Kathryn Minton at Kathryn@downtownlex.com or 859-425-2595.