Front-row parking offered to green-minded Orlando drivers

For anyone who has ever circled a crowded parking lot, a new kind of preferred-parking space is getting between them and the front door.
As though owners of hybrid vehicles aren't imperious enough with their 50-plus miles to the gallon, green-construction proponents are now reserving front-row parking spaces for such drivers at a growing number of buildings.

The University of Central Florida's new arena added four spaces for hybrids and car poolers this month. The new Amway Center's Geico Garage has 46 spaces set aside for hybrids and 36 reserved for car poolers. Orlando Utilities Commission and Orlando City Hall have at least one prime space designated for electric cars that need charging and plan on adding 300 more charging stations and parking spaces within an hour's drive of downtown by 2012.

Prior to the emergence of preferential parking for alternative-fuel vehicles, special parking privileges had been reserved for handicapped drivers with doctor-prescribed decals on their vehicles.
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But unlike the handicap spaces, spots for hybrids and car poolers generally lack any kind of enforcement, raising questions about whether they'll be taken seriously.

"Right now this is a promotional thing, so I don't think we're seeing enforcement," said Jon Ippel, the city of Orlando's sustainability manager. "It's more peer pressure. Hopefully the evil eyes violators get will force them to comply."

The main driver of the special parking slots: They're inexpensive and help commercial buildings earn coveted environmental certifications from the U.S. Green Building Council. The council's LEED certification has become a must-have for new government facilities and elite private buildings, such as Darden Restaurants' new corporate headquarters in south Orlando.

Ippel described the special parking designations as "kind of an emerging field" that started with handicap spaces but has grown to include "sustainable spaces." He said it's the least-established component of the LEED certification, and with the emergence of all-electric vehicles, Ippel said, people may start to see electric-only charging stations instead of reserved spaces for hybrids.

City of Orlando spokeswoman Cassandra Lafser likened them to grocery-store parking spots set aside for pregnant women.

"There are the social-pressure aspects of it that should restrict it for those people it's reserved for," she said.

Parking spaces are just one small piece of earning a LEED certification. In hopes of landing a top-level LEED for the UCF Arena, for example, the facility's managers recently installed light sensors and stepped up their use of recycled products. The Global Spectrum L.P. operations staff is also reducing lamp wattages in offices, locker rooms and hallways.

And they have designated parking for hybrids.

"The preferred-parking spaces for hybrid and carpool vehicles is something new that we are doing here at the UCF Arena as a benefit to those who visit the retail shops in the area surrounding the arena, as well as those who attend events in the arena," said Melissa Schaaff, the venue's marketing director. "We reserve spaces for guests who have premium seating in the arena, and felt that it was important to also reserve spaces for those guests who are driving hybrid vehicles and/or carpooling to events, to recognize them for doing their part to be environmentally aware."
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Some high-profile facilities, such as the Orange County Convention Center and Orlando International Airport, have yet to set aside green parking spaces. But Swedish furniture retailer IKEA has them at its south Orlando store, said Alexa Stone, program manager for ecoPreserve LLC, an Orlando consulting firm.

Stone knows such spaces aren't universally embraced.

"I have heard that some people didn't like it because they question whether it's fair," she said. "They think hybrids are expensive and elitist." Those concerns should ease, she added, as the auto industry rolls out more-affordable versions of hybrids and electric cars.

For Seminole County resident Thomas Ho, who has owned hybrid vehicles for almost a decade, the parking incentive is not the reason buyers pay a premium for technology that doesn't always make economic sense.

People purchase the cars, he said, because they want to cut fuel consumption and reduce carbon emissions not to get a better parking space.
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