Pensacola goes forward with back-in, angled parking

Slow down and back up.

Those will be the watchwords Monday when parking on North Palafox Street in downtown Pensacola gets a new wrinkle.
Officials hope the switch from parallel parking to back-in, angled parking on three blocks of the street will boost business on Palafox between Garden and Wright streets.

But bring your patience at least for the first weeks as drivers adjust to the new traffic flow.

"If you can parallel park, then you can do this easier," said Kim Kimbrough, executive director of the Pensacola Downtown Improvement Board. "This is only three steps instead of four."

Key points of the changes:

To create the space needed for the angled spaces, Palafox will be reduced from four lanes to two.

Parallel spaces will remain along the left side of the street nearest the median. Angled, back-in spaces will be available along the right side of the street.

The speed limit will be lowered from 30 mph to 25 mph.

Downtown Parking Management District officials say the switch will bump the number of available spaces in that three-block stretch from 69 to 174, and the new spaces are free.

Some Palafox business owners are outraged at a change they believe is coming too fast and without their input. Others are more ambivalent, willing to wait and see how the new parking pans out.

"This project is about reactivating these three blocks, beautifying this entrance into downtown, slowing down traffic and creating more parking," Kimbrough said. "If other cities can do it, so can we."

Nationwide trend

Back-in spaces are popular in places such as San Francisco; Birmingham, Ala.; New York City; Portland, Ore.; Salt Lake City; Seattle; Indianapolis; Baltimore; Washington, D.C.; and Vancouver, Wash.

"The trend for back-in angle spaces has been catching on rapidly in cities all over the U.S. for safety reasons," Pensacola Parking Manager Hilary Gilles said.

While angled, forward-entry spaces could achieve the same number of added spaces, they're considered dangerous and some cities are doing away with them, Kimbrough said.

"With angled, forward spaces, it's hard to back out because you can't see over the other vehicles," Kimbrough said. "With back-in spaces, you have a clearer view pulling out, passengers exit the vehicle onto the sidewalk, and packages can be loaded into the vehicle on the sidewalk instead of the street."

Kimbrough acknowledges there will be a big learning curve.

"There may be a few fender-benders as people get used to this," he said. "But in places where this is implemented, statistics show that collisions go down to nearly nothing after people get used to it."

Why the change?

One of the primary reasons for the changes has to do with the 82,000 square feet of vacant commercial space along these three blocks, where buildings stay vacant an average of four years the highest building vacancy rate of anywhere in downtown Pensacola, according to DIB statistics.

Kimbrough says one reason for that is the perception by potential merchants that there's a lack of parking for customers.

But business owners interviewed by the News Journal said parking has not been an issue, with the exception of large events.

Kimbrough says it's a "chicken-and-egg" situation: If parking is not expanded, the deficit perception will remain.

"This is an economic-development strategy," Kimbrough said. "It is going to make these big, old, empty buildings usable again. It will make these businesses more attractive because drivers will have to slow down to look at them."

Reactions

The parking management district began planning the back-in spaces with engineers in December 2009.

But some North Palafox business owners, including Norma Murray, complain they were not told about it until a few weeks before it was to happen and were not involved in the planning.

Murray has owned Norma's on the Run along North Palafox for 17 years. The block in front of her business will not convert to back-in spaces for another three to six months, but that doesn't calm her fears.

"This is a concept according to the reading I have done on it that takes 300 percent more awareness of people on how to do it correctly," Murray said. "And I think the DIB has moved too quickly on this."

One of Murray's concerns is that large SUVs backing toward the sidewalk may knock over her sidewalk bistro tables or hit one of her customers.

"There is nowhere else in Florida that has this," she said. "It is going to take some education for Pensacola drivers so they know what is happening, so there are not a lot of accidents."

Other business owners are excited about the new concept.

"I am optimistic that it will help our businesses, especially if parking is the excuse for not coming down on this side of Palafox," said Greg Wescoat, general manager of Elise Coastal Dining. "Change is good, we can't remain static."

Cortney Campus, owner of Style, a beauty boutique, said parking is not an issue for her shop. She is waiting to see how the new concept works out.

"It's hard to imagine what it's going to be like with one lane and cars stopping to back in," Campus said. "I feel like people are going to be really confused. It's not anything I have heard of, but I am all about changing to make things better."
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