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Preventing the Parking Crunch

​Cities Communicate Parking Solutions for Growing Downtowns

Downtown parking issues are often thought of as a big-city problem: lots of people living in close quarters puts parking at a premium. But for small cities and towns, downtown parking woes may be more an issue of perception than reality.

Several South Carolina municipalities tackled parking concerns by using a variety of tactics to increase the amount of parking spaces available and making sure residents know about it.

Parking lot situated along Bluffton Road
A parking lot situated along Bluffton Road is a relatively new
addition to Bluffton's Historic District. Photo: Town of Bluffton.

The Town of Bluffton watched for decades as nearby Hilton Head Island grew rapidly. In the past 10 years, that growth has spilled over into Bluffton, bringing with it visitors and more residents — more than 20,000 at last count. The original town, now the Bluffton Historic District, was just 1 square mile.

"Investment in the town's historic district has spurred tourism and economic development, and that has spurred the need for more parking," said Debbie Szpanka, Bluffton's public information officer.

Bluffton has taken a two-pronged approach to deal with its parking issues. First, when the town developed a park or common space, it added parking. A total of 627 new spaces were added during streetscaping.

Dr. Mellinchamp Drive, Town of Bluffton
The recent streetscaping project along Bluffton's Dr. Mellichamp Drive
included newly added street parking. Photo: Town of Bluffton.

"For new town projects, we have bought property and used it for open spaces and parking," Szpanka said. "In every town project, we are looking at the parking component."

The second line of attack is to modify people's perceptions. Longer-term residents were used to parking right in front of the businesses they wanted to visit.

"Now, they may have to park a block away," Szpanka said. "So, I pose the question 'Does Bluffton have a parking problem or a walking problem?'"

Martin Family Park, Town of Bluffton
Martin Family Park, Bluffton's new greenspace addition to
Boundary Street, has a parking lot. Photo: Town of Bluffton.

Szpanka said the town includes information about parking when it is telling the public about new developments, and the town's website shows the location of all available parking and the cost.

The City of Florence wanted to know whether its parking issues were perception or reality, so the city paid for a study.

"One of the things that was money well spent was when we hired a consultant to study the parking that we had," said Ray Reich, Florence's recently retired downtown development manager. "You know, sometimes, you can't see the forest for the trees. The consultant looked at it from the perspective of what was a good strategic parking plan to carry the city into the future. Their study reinforced some things we already knew and told us some things we didn't know."

The Emerson apartments, City of Florence
Built in 2016, The Emerson apartments in downtown
Florence conceal a publicly available parking deck.

Florence is experiencing a rebirth downtown with additional hotels, restaurants, shops and even residents. While its parking issues were part perception, the consultant revealed there really was a need for more spaces.

The City of Florence recently completed its first municipal parking deck, which was built in conjunction with an apartment development.

"For us, it was really a no-brainer," Reich said. "We had been looking at doing a deck, and of course, the problem is Number 1, space and Number 2, cost. About the same time we were looking at building it, we were working with a developer from Charlotte that wanted to do our first apartment complex downtown."

Reich said he remembered seeing a project known as The Bookends in Greenville where a parking garage was sandwiched between two apartment buildings and suggested the same to his developer. So Florence built the garage and the developer "wrapped" it in apartments. Reich said the city used tax increment financing to create the cash flow to pay off the garage over time.

City of Florence parking deck off South Irby Street
The entrance to downtown Florence's parking deck
is found a short distance off South Irby Street.

Creating the 500 garage spaces for downtown parking came with the displacement of 150 surface parking spaces.

"During construction, it is the pain for the gain," Reich said. "During that year of construction was when education was most important."

The city used social media, print advertising and maps to show visitors and residents where parking was available.

"We even put large posters on easels in all the major stores downtown showing the parking," Reich said. "Now that things have settled out, you still have people complaining there's not a place to park, but it's more they don't want to walk."

The garage provides parking for residents in the apartment complex, downtown shoppers and diners, as well as for events at the nearby performing arts center and the museum.

"When we promote events, we will say that there's plenty of parking in the garage and include a parking map," Reich said. "The good news for residents is it doesn't look like a garage. The bad news is visitors don't realize it's a public garage so we have to have a lot of signage and wayfinding downtown."

The project worked so well, the city is going to do it again.

"We are working on a mixed-use project that will have a hotel, apartment, office complex with a parking garage," Reich said.

In Greenwood, where the historic central business district is known as Uptown Greenwood, the first major residential development of high-end condominiums also brought some parking issues. Because the project and the city are much smaller, the solution was a little easier than building a parking garage.

SC Festival of Discovery, City of Greenwood
In Uptown Greenwood, influxes of people for major events like the SC Festival of
Discovery can reduce the availability of parking. Photo: City of Greenwood.

"We created residential parking passes," said Lara Hudson, Uptown Greenwood's manager. "Because it's one thing to want to park close to the business you're going to, but you really do need to park close to your house."

Typically, the city's only parking issues come up during large events. At other times, parking is more of an issue of perception. The city has been blessed, Hudson said, "with a large number of parking spaces right in front of our stores. So when it's not there, people think parking is a problem."

The city also has established two-hour time limits on parking in its commercial district, but some have indicated that the limit was not enough time for customers to complete their business. Hudson pointed to the case of an art studio that hosts classes. The solution there was to provide temporary parking permits for the studio which it could give to students, something that was also done for an event venue where meetings could run for many hours.

Handling individual complaints on a case-by-case basis and coming up with practical solutions, Hudson said, allows for both a business-friendly and customer-friendly environment.