Avondale parking a never-ending problem with difficult solutions

Avondale parking a never-ending problem with difficult solutions
At 11 a.m. on a weekday, parking has started to fill up on the street in the Shoppes of Avondale. An hour later, customers will find it difficult to find space along St. Johns Avenue, instead circling the blocks for parking one and two streets over.

Economic success, at least in Avondale, has come at the price of parking – or the lack of it.

In the three years following the success of Mellow Mushroom’s foray into the neighborhood, the commercial mix in a three-block portion of St. Johns Avenue known as the Shoppes of Avondale has begun to change in favor of dining over shopping – and that shift has implications for the entire neighborhood.

Four decades ago, and up until the past few years, the blocks around the Shoppes constituted a safe, walkable neighborhood where residents left their cars at home and strolled up to St. Johns Avenue to shop at La Tierra Clothier or Gladys Thompson Dress Shop, visit a barber shop or Joseph and Charles Hair Salon, take their children to the bookstore or get an ice cream soda at the Avondale Pharmacy, where you could also mail letters or have a watch repaired.

“There were things that were only available here in Avondale, so you had to come here to get it,” said long-time businessman Hooshang Harvesf, Ph.D., owner of Hooshang’s Oriental Rugs. “It was destination shopping.”

Avondale, like the Park and King retail corridor, has changed over the years and is now a popular dining destination. Where once there were a handful of restaurants, the Fox Diner among them, now there are more than a dozen places to eat and drink within a two-block stretch of St. Johns Avenue, between Dancy Street and Talbot Avenue.

“The balance is lost,” said Harvesf. “The neighborhood is turning from retail to entertainment.”

The tipping point in the balance may have been the ordinance passed in 2012 which does not require restaurants with 100 seats or less to contribute to parking, and the J-Bill, also known as Florida House Bill 655, which provides exceptions for space and seating requirements for liquor licenses for those same small restaurants. As shops and boutiques, such as the former Cowford Traders, are vacated, hungry restaurateurs are seizing the opportunity to put in small, intimate restaurants without adding off-street parking spaces.

But lack of parking has become so acute, District 14 Councilman Jim Love, who spearheaded Ordinance 2012-339, which gives restaurants with 100 seats or less a buy when it comes to providing parking, seems to be having second thoughts.

“Maybe it needs to be toned down one more time,” said Love, referring to Ordinance 2012-339. “And if we do, that means if someone wants to go into a building that was formerly an office or a home, they would not be able to put in a restaurant unless they put in additional parking.”

According to Love, the idea of removing the requirement for parking in the historic districts was to encourage businesses in those areas. “Guess what? It worked,” he said. “Maybe we’re at the point of requiring parking for all restaurants in order to put a cap on the number of restaurants.”

Frank Gallo, owner of the property and parking lot used by Blue Fish Restaurant and Oyster Bar, said the legislation should be stronger. “He should introduce a bill immediately to limit more restaurants,” said Gallo, referring to Councilman Love. “Without this legislation, restaurants may survive but the smaller shops won’t. If you think people will drive around to find parking to buy a frozen custard or a cookie, you’re out of your mind.”

No optimal solution

Most of the solutions proposed for parking don’t address where to find it or create it. Rather, many ideas offered alternatives to parking, such as walking, bicycling, using public transportation or Uber/Lyft. Other suggestions deal with enforcement, such as installing limited-time parking signs, instituting resident tags, and requiring businesses’ employees to park several blocks away.

Love would like to try limited-time parking, but only if a majority of the merchants agree. “The city would need to pass a resolution for three-hour parking,” he said. “One concern is enforcement. Some of that has to come from shop owners, who would have to call the city to ticket the car.”

But gaining a police presence for something as benign as parking enforcement is “not likely,” according to City Council President Lori Boyer. At a July 14 meeting on parking issues in San Marco Square in anticipation of a new restaurant, Boyer said the budget controls the number of officers and crime controls where they are placed. “It is unrealistic to expect we are going to get more police cover or more parking enforcement just because you have more businesses opening,” she said.

Dianne Garcia, president of the Shoppes of Avondale Merchants Association, said she has a few ideas on how to add parking, but added that there is not a lot of acceptance for them and no one is willing to make the investment.

“There are fears more parking will bring in more restaurants,” said Garcia.

One idea both Garcia and Gallo mentioned was converting the landscaped median on Ingleside Avenue between Riverside Avenue and Herschel Street to angle parking, similar to the parking median in Murray Hill on Edgewood Avenue, but the idea isn’t supported by many, said Garcia.

This isn’t the first time Ingleside Avenue has been targeted for parking. When a parking study was undertaken in 2013, survey responses from residents indicated opposition to removing the medians on Ingleside, as they were deemed to be part of the neighborhood’s historic character.

Garcia also suggested expanding parking at Boone Park by moving the playground away from the corner to accommodate employee parking, or converting the vacant lot on St. Johns Avenue between Van Wert Avenue and Dancy Street to a surface lot, which could be used for employee or customer valet parking.

“Not next door to me”

The fact is, there’s not a lot of space – or desire – for a small parking garage or even a surface lot in Avondale. Most homeowners don’t want a lot or a garage right next door or even a block away, and they are expensive to build and to maintain.

Parking garages are risky multi-million dollar investments if people are not used to or willing to pay for parking, according to Jack Shad, former City of Jacksonville officer of public parking.

“Parking garages are hellaciously expensive, costing between $15,000 and $25,000 per space to construct,” said Shad, who owns Windmill Consulting, an urban planning, historic preservation and real estate brokerage. “The smaller the garage, the higher the cost per space.”

Throw in insurance, staff, cleaning and maintenance, the cost to service the debt on long-term financing would require each space to earn $1,700 per year, he said, noting the City spends $400 per space per year in maintenance for downtown public parking garages.

“Parking lots are cheaper but RAP (Riverside Avondale Preservation) is not always amenable unless it blends in, like the 5 Points Publix,” said Love.

In fact, the Riverside Avondale Zoning Overlay notes that off-street parking lots for premises requiring off-street parking are permissible “when meeting the performance standards and development criteria set forth in Part 4” of the Zoning Code (Chapter 656 of the Jacksonville Municipal Code), which in turn refers to Part 12 “Landscape and Tree Protection Regulations.” Additionally, the Zoning Code notes parking lots must be within 400 feet of the premises requiring off-street parking, severely restricting such possibilities for the Shoppes of Avondale.

Should property be available and compliant with the noted restrictions, even surface lots cost approximately $2,500 per space to construct and maintain, said Shad, who indicated it would be difficult to get the merchants and/or their landlords to contribute to the cost of a parking lot. “It’s a typical collective action problem,” he said. “Why should a business contribute if it might not be in that space long-term?”

Shared parking is another alternative, said Shad, but there is a cost to letting customers from other businesses use your space at night, including insurance, maintenance and cleanup.

“There’s real role for someone – like the City, RAP or the merchants association – to be an honest broker and find a way to provide insurance and a clean-up crew, and to collect from the merchants,” he said. “It’s not profitable for smaller surface lots to pay someone to collect parking fees unless multiple lots can be serviced by one person. That can be done with payment apps.”

Whether it’s a dearth of parking or a surfeit of restaurants – or a combination – the issue has not been laid to rest. Perhaps Love said it best in December 2013 when the Parking Study Steering Committee presented a number of solutions aimed at managing the existing parking supply, increasing that supply and managing behavior.

“We’re going to be working on this forever,” he said.

By Kate A. Hallock
Resident Community News

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