Scott Ball / Rivard Report
The explosion of artistic, culinary, and spirituous establishments in Southtown has largely been a boon for residents in the historic King William and Lavaca neighborhoods just south of downtown San Antonio. More than 10 years ago, this part of town was not somewhere a young woman would feel comfortable strolling down the street at night.
Since public and private investments started pouring into the urban core in this, the so-called “decade of downtown,” property values are up, day and night time amenities are plenty, and casual strolls are part of every day life.
Now it seems like the rest of San Antonio, and beyond, wants a taste – and visitors, somewhat ironically, want to drive to enjoy the walkable neighborhood. Today parking is free and open to residents, visitors, employees and construction workers on most streets. Traffic-inducing events – which now occur almost weekly in the bustling cultural district – typically attract hundreds of people that park vehicles along often narrow streets. Instead of First Friday, it’s become almost “Every Friday.”
For years residents have been calling City departments to report cars that block driveways, are too far away from the curb, parked for long periods of time, or too close to nearby cars, according to the Center City Development and Operations Department (CCDO).
Dozens of neighbors gathered Thursday night for the second of what will likely be many more meetings to discuss the escalating parking problem. They, and many more on the social networking site Nextdoor, roundly rejected the parking program that CCDO Deputy Director Jim Mery and traffic consultant Amy Avery proposed after more than a year’s worth of research in the neighborhood and on national best practices for parking.
One by one, area residents and business owners tore into their preliminary suggestions for the Downtown District Parking Permit Program for its seemingly complicated logistics and potential cost to residents.
“It’s a neighborhood, not a downtown business district,” said Edith Stockhart, who has lived on the corner of King William and Beauregard streets for more than 32 years. “We (residents) made this neighborhood possible. We brought it back.”
Mery and Avery, who work for local consultancy firm Kimley-Horn and Associates, welcomed the criticism. This is, after all, part of the process, Mery said. More meetings are forthcoming, and the parking plan has already evolved with the incorporation of citizen comment since the first public meeting last week.
“There is nothing in this plan that is set in stone. Zero,” Mery said at the beginning and reiterated at the end of the meeting that took place at the City’s Development Services Department “one stop” shop on the outskirts of King William.
Among other regulations, all street parking within King William and Lavaca boundaries would be designated as two-hour parking from 7 a.m. to midnight. Streets that are less than 27 feet wide would revert to one-sided parking, leaving room for two way traffic. Residents and business owners would both receive two free permits for round-the-clock parking for registered license plates in certain zones. Residents would also receive one free hang tag that a visitor or resident could use on any car.
The proposed system favored residents over businesses, but residents balked at having to pay for extra permits – $20 each for two years – and unlimited one-day visitor passes for guests that would cost $1 each for the first 20, $2 for the next 20 after that, and $3 each beyond 40.
While giving an example of how the program will work in their neighborhood, Avery suggested that two hours would be enough for a dinner party.
The audience, 100 strong and standing room only, erupted with laughter – the first of many outbursts of the evening.
This neighborhood knows how to party and it takes more than two hours to do it, longtime resident Marie Ann Smith said later. “Those 20 (visitor scratch off) permits would be about one party for me.”
The Permit Program would replace the “antiquated” special event parking in Lavaca initiated in 1993 when the Alamodome opened, Mery said, that simply can’t keep up with all the new special, sometimes pop-up events taking place at Yanaguana Garden, La Villita, and Lone Star Brewery. A permit program could deter encroachment on the neighborhoods by people that park there to walk to work downtown and those that spend several hours at festivals and events near the neighborhood.
Business owners, especially those with wait-lists and full menus, also took issue with the two-hour limit. Some thought three hours might work, but others questioned if that could be enforced completely.
“We all know when you (park) in a two-hour zone, you just move your car,” said resident Cherise Rohr-Allegrini, who frequently writes for the Rivard Report. “Hire the teenager that has a drivers license and give him all the keys.”
Many found the system overly complicated but at the same time felt that a “blanket” policy for all streets ignores the nuanced needs of individual streets.
Billy Lawrence, founding principal of Alamo Architects who lives in Lavaca, proposed during the neighborhood association‘s board meeting that a “block-by-block” approach that assigns residential and commercial parking to either side of the street could work. The problem one street faces may be non-existent on another.
His proposal was well received by neighbors.
Two elements of the City’s presentation, however, were easy for most to agree with: opening up “shared” parking lots with public entities to nighttime parking and increased enforcement.
The City is working with Alamo Community Colleges, the San Antonio Independent School District, and San Antonio River Authority to open up their parking lots to the public and participate in an awareness program about the extra parking. Once agreements are signed, those lots will likely be filled quickly on First Friday.
The City cannot legally enter into a shared parking agreement with private entities, even nonprofits, for insurance reasons. Many private companies and businesses that don’t use their lots at night sell one-time parking for $10-$20 per night.
Part of the proposed program would include a dedicated parking enforcement officer, explained Jonathan Featherston, the CCDO’s parking operations and enforcement manager.
Those found in violation would receive a warning during the first two weeks of the program. After that, $30 citations would be issued. If someone receives three tickets and neglects to pay the City, then the car will get towed.
“We know there’s going to be a learning curve,” Featherston told the crowd. “We will not tow unless we feel like the message is not getting across through citations.”
After the meeting, Featherston said neighbors can currently report violations by calling 311 City Services or contacting the police department’s SAFFE (San Antonio Fear Free Environment) officers assigned to the area: David McCall and Robert Esquivel.
This process didn’t start in November. It’s the culmination of two years of meetings among neighborhood associations and the City aimed at trying to figure out an equitable solution to the unintended parking problem that the neighborhoods’ success has brought. While some neighbors suggested that they’d rather deal with traffic and parking than the “hassle” of dealing with permits and tickets, this process was a result of the neighborhood asking the City for help, said Rose Kanusky, who chairs the transportation and parking committee for the King William Association.
“If you or your neighbor is having a heart attack, and the ambulance can’t get to your house (because of narrow streets with parking on both sides),” Kanusky said. “That’s a problem.”
She’s hopeful that the conversation will continue.
“It feels, for me, good and exciting that the City is listening and trying to help,” she said. “I think accommodations will be made to address some of the concerns heard today.”
The City would like to settle on a program that could be, at least partly, applied to other urban core neighborhoods that are – or will – experience similar problems.
“Thinking (long term) is proactive instead of, so many times, we’ve been only reactive,” Kanusky added. “The inner city neighborhoods are coming back and we need to protect the best qualities of that before it’s too late.”
However the parking plan in Southtown turns out, it’s not likely to please everyone – something that Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1), who represents much of downtown, is well aware.
“It’s an ongoing process and there really isn’t a perfect solution,” Treviño said, noting the diverse demographics and diversity of the built environment and cultures in the two neighborhoods.
“But we also have to establish some level of consistency,” he said. “We don’t want to overcomplicate it so that the (residents and visitors) can’t follow it.”
Whatever plan emerges, he said, he hopes it results in more people taking advantage of alternative modes of transportation.
“It is quite amazing what’s happening in downtown, especially in those neighborhoods,” Treviño said. “The goal is to provide something that is going to be good for this community and future communities.”
Some in the neighborhood have suggested that the City build a parking garage. That would be a much larger undertaking than the CCDO could tackle on its own, requiring millions of dollars to identify and acquire the necessary property, let alone construct.