Plan extends pay parking until midnight

People who come downtown for a meal or a drink in the evening would have to feed the meter until midnight, under a proposal the Athens Downtown Development Authority has agreed to send to the Athens-Clarke Commission for consideration.
Faced with a debt to pay off a parking deck under construction off West Washington Street, the authority will recommend charging for on-street parking until midnight six days a week; installing a 24-hour, automated payment system in the College Avenue deck; and doing away with the free first 30 minutes of deck parking.

Sunday parking would continue to be free, while rates would remain 50 cents an hour for on-street parking and $1.50 for the deck, under the proposal.

"I think the nighttime thing is going to happen," said Athens-Clarke Commissioner Mike Hamby, who sits on the ADDA board.

Merchants have debated about free parking for years, Hamby said.

"The argument all along has been that the daytime merchants' customers have to pay the meter, so should nighttime merchants' and shopowners' (customers) not?" he said. "We are just trying to make it even across the board."

In order to make the $500,000 annual debt payment for the new deck, commissioners last month considered a plan to raise parking rates to $2 - essentially raising the parking system's revenue by 50 percent.

But commissioners shied away from the proposal, saying they would consider other options, like charging for on-street parking after 7 p.m., which has been free.

Merchants that rely on daytime shoppers obviously want nighttime parkers to share the financial burden and keep hourly rates low, but commissioners do not want to raise parking deck rates higher than on-street rates, they say.

"You've got to move in the direction that it is cheaper to park in the deck than on the street," Hamby said. "You don't have to do it all in one year. But I think we will have to raise rates some - over time."

Some business owners that rely on Athens nightlife may not be unhappy if the commission decides to charge for parking after dusk.

Jaamy Zarnegar, the co-owner of Last Resort Grill, thinks applying parking fees into the evening it might help businesses like his.

"I think charging meters in the evening will make people more conscious of paying or moving," Zarnegar said. "Now, when people park at 7 p.m., they walk away and leave the car in that spot until morning. It's blocked in all night."

And while some will kick and scream about any fee increase, the brouhaha over previous increases died down quickly, he said.

"When we went from $3 to $10 (for a ticket), we thought there would be a coup d'etat," he said. "But it didn't turn out that way."

Rates are still cheap enough that some downtown workers choose to feed the meter and pay tickets rather than pay $75 on a 30-day lease for a space in a deck or surface lot, which both the government and private businesses offer.

"I know it is going to inconvenience some people, but maybe they will think about getting a monthly pass to a parking deck," Zarnegar said.

"I think it's good for the city to raise more money and good for us," he said.

Some authority members wondered aloud as they made the recommendation Tuesday whether bar-goers who started drinking at 8 or 9 p.m. would return to feed the meter.

A potential solution, if commissioners share that concern, would be for the ADDA to buy more of the pay-and-display meter machines installed on Clayton and Broad streets early last year. The machines are more flexible to program and would allow the commission to consider extending the amount of time people can park after a certain time, authority members said.

While the downtown business owners on the authority agreed that bar patrons should share the burden of funding the parking system, people who have been drinking probably will be harder to handle, and parking system employees will need more training, said ADDA Executive Director Kathryn Lookofsky.

"During the day, (ticket-writers) get kicked, pushed, spit on - and that's sober people," she said.
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