I wanted to write about how downtown parking is an issue that is really of growing concern, and I also wanted to give food for thought on a couple of other issues, road planning and the University of Georgia's exemption from property taxes.
The downtown parking scheme hasn't been discussed a lot in the newspapers lately, but it certainly stays a hot topic with the denizens of the downtown area. Jackson Street Books is still encouraging a little civil disobedience with a sign promising a discount for discarding parking tickets without paying for them. Their objection is the recent redesignation of a number of two-hour street parking spaces into one-hour spaces because one hour generally isn't long enough to conduct business or enjoy a visit downtown, which is true. There is much that can't be done comfortably in an hour, such as meeting a party for lunch. The owner of Athens Jewelers on Clayton Street told me that she can't have a normal meeting with vendors because they are concerned about their parking meters, and an employee of Walker's Pub told me that the staff frequently leave to move their cars around (which supposedly the employees of Adam's Optics do, too).
Parking is indeed inadequate for the uses we make of downtown. The College Avenue parking deck fills up, which is why downtown employees are parking in one-hour spaces on the street to begin with, and perhaps the Classic Center deck is too far away from many places (and charges a flat fee rather than by the hour). The new parking deck being planned for Lumpkin Street is too little too late since parking has always been strained. If parking could be made adequate, then perhaps a lot of downtown businesses wouldn't fold so quickly, and it would be an easier place to visit. Stores and restaurants have a patronage that is somewhat limited to the university community (who already has another reason to be close to downtown) and those that work in downtown businesses (and already have a parking space from the limited supply of reserved public and private spaces). People who live and work outside of the downtown area are hardly going there to visit for lunch and they aren't encouraged to shop much either.
The metered parking scheme is by no means harsh. The basic ticket is $3, which is cheaper than all-day parking in any garage. If you add money to your meter when the hour has expired, your ticket is $5 (says someone at Walker's Pub). Penalties such as booting are directed at accumulating unpaid tickets, but as far as I know you can pay all the $3 tickets you want. So in effect we have a system with a flat $3 fee for parking all day, which is a pretty good deal. Why pay in the meter if you know you're going to be parked longer than an hour?
So parking is very limited, and there is little incentive to leave once you get a space (which is basically a good thing). Are there any solutions? The bright idea of changing two-hour spaces into one-hour spaces may help make more spaces available, but at that same time that discourages a number of people from coming downtown in the first place. I also don't think that there is a chance of getting a good number of garages built either; the financial figures for that new parking facility being planned suggest that those parking spaces take a very long time to pay for themselves, so any accelerated effort would probably have to be paid with new taxes rather than parking fees. Does anyone have ideas for solutions? I certainly can't advocate razing buildings and clearing lots for cheap parking. Limited parking is really just the nature of the beast.
Effective road planning in Athens is hampered by short-sightedness. This has been weighing on my mind a bit because every time it comes up in the news it seems that the NIMBY (not in my backyard) arguments usually win. For example, in years past there was a proposal for a new east-west corridor north of the current Perimeter Highway. It would have been very useful for residents and visitors, but it was scrapped because of all the objections, and of course the county commissioners in those districts have to be responsive to their voters, even when the result might be bad overall for the community. However, people will still complain about the congestion on Atlanta Highway and Mitchell Bridge Road, which could be relieved by such a new route, and the remaining solution seems to be to stop new development. The NIMBY arguments turn into a desire to exclude new residents and new growth, which of course is only going to encourage sprawl rather than compact, efficient development suited for a growing urban environment.
In addition to objecting to new major roads, there are objections to certain short roads that would connect subdivisions. These objections violate the planning goals that were set when the subdivisions were approved for development. (Certain subdivisions have had specific plans to later build roads connecting them to other subdivisions.) The advantage of allowing through traffic is that congestion is relieved from certain corridors and intersections, often more to the benefit of nearby residents than far-flung visitors. Residents may add that they had no knowledge of the plans to connect their subdivision in the future, but the wrongdoing here is between the developer and the home buyers, not the county government and the buyers. Of course, the commissioners that make the exceptions to the plans are serving in a different election term than their predecessors who approved the plans. It is not a straightforward claim that allowing through traffic is bad. Studies that compare crime rates between connected and isolated subdivisions have conflicting results, but clearly, though, there is some good in establishing a town with efficient traffic patterns.
THE UNIVERSITY OF GEORGIA HAS UNTAXABLE PROPERTY
I wanted to touch on this issue because it has reared its ugly head again in the editorial-page discussions over the future of the Navy Supply Corps School site. A frequent complaint from elected officials and citizens is that it hurts the county government to have all this UGA property inside the county that is exempt from property taxes. The implication or sometimes direct accusation is that UGA uses county services that it doesn't pay for, but this is simply not true. A weaker version of the argument is that UGA benefits from the county without paying taxes, but the local community also benefits from UGA's presence without paying tuition.
Those that argue that UGA uses county services without paying for them need to actually name the specific services they have in mind. The complaints essentially reduce to a desire for greater financial resources for the county. Yes, it would be nice to tax UGA property, just as it would be nice to raise the millage rate or maybe have Santa Claus deliver a ton of gold bricks to the courthouse. Any issue here should not be about not paying but about balancing services, just as Athens-Clarke has to balance its services and tax districts with Winterville. What services does UGA use without paying for?
Roads? Yes, there are some county roads that go through campus, but there are also some campus roads open to the public. UGA maintains its own roads, and it maintains the sidewalks along many county roads. It pays the county to maintain the traffic lights along its campus roads.
Water and sewer? UGA has its own utilities department that maintains its water and sewer infrastructure. I believe it pays the county for incoming water and outgoing sewage. If UGA is unfairly benefitting from this arrangement, then only the county could be blamed for not charging the actual cost of its services, but I have never heard this pointed to as a particular issue.
Law enforcement? State funds operate UGA's own police department. In fact, the UGA police serve Athens-Clarke and many other counties with its bomb disposal unit, and it is paid for by a complicated arrangement with state agencies. Fire protection? That is an interesting one. I had heard about UGA not paying for fire protection and it does not have its own fire department. I wrote to Tom Jackson of the Public Affairs office at UGA and he replied, "While UGA does not pay the county directly for fire services, we have provided the county with the land for Fire Station #7 on Barnett Shoals on a 50-year lease with a rent of $1 per year." So UGA is now providing valuable compensation for fire protection.
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Anyway, back to the downtown parking issue, I am quite interested in what solutions you may propose, or whether "solutions" should be proposed at all.