No room on the road. Parking garages are future of downtown

jwilkinson@thestate.comFebruary 16, 2014 

— When it comes to parking garages, people either love ’em or hate ’em.

But no matter where you fall in the argument, if you live, work or play in downtown Columbia, you are about to become more dependent on structured parking.

Chalk it up to the growing pains of a growing city.

With the downtown building boom back on track after the recent recession, people’s parking habits will have to change, officials say. Traditional surface lots are filling up with new buildings – particularly in and around the University of South Carolina campus – and motorists will have little choice but to head to parking garages.

That prospect doesn’t sit well with about half the populace, according to a very informal social media and man-on-the-street sample conducted by The State.

“I don’t like walking through them by myself, that’s for sure,” said USC student Brooke Hesano, 26, who is from suburban Detroit. “They’re smelly and creepy and cold and dark. It’s like Gotham City.”

But city and USC planners want a tight, tall, pedestrian-friendly downtown without acres of open asphalt. It’s the bedrock of USC’s Innovista Design Guidelines, which are intended to create an exciting, urban downtown that will attract and retain the type of young professionals, entrepreneurs and researchers needed to power the city’s emerging high-tech economy.

They want a concentrated mix of residences, stores, bars and restaurants, all within walking distance.

“People love to walk around, and that’s the goal,” said Fred Delk, executive director of the Columbia Development Corp., which encourages and guides development in the Vista and other downtown areas. “But not past a bunch of surface lots.”

The bottom line is you can’t hitch your buggy in front of the drug store anymore.

“Anywhere you get that kind of density, people will have to park in garages,” Delk said.

Disappearing parking lots

Already, streetscaping through USC’s downtown campus, intended to improve pedestrian safety, has eliminated much of the parking on Assembly Street from Blossom Street to Pendleton Street.

Construction of student housing and other buildings behind the Carolina Coliseum and the new Moore School of Business will eliminate about 1,000 more spaces. The two lots normally are packed with student vehicles during the day and often patrons of Colonial Life Arena or Koger Center at night.

The Innovista master plan also calls for more surface lots to be eliminated as the campus grows toward the Congaree River.

A USC spokesman said in an email that officials believe parking at the university is “adequate.” The spokesman also wrote that parking garages near the coliseum, arena and Koger Center are open to the public for performances and events, even after the normal 11 p.m. closing time.

University officials declined requests for an interview about parking on campus and declined to provide any specific parking statistics.

‘Security is an issue’

Feelings about garages are mixed, according to the sample.

“I feel like it’s safer than the street as long as it is lit up,” said Meagan Campbell, 30, of Irmo, a salon manager. “I feel better than walking though dark streets to get to my car.”

But Campbell seems to be in the minority among women. Most interviewed or who commented online said they didn’t feel safe in parking garages.

“Security is an issue,” said Dona Maria Ayers, a former spokesperson for the S.C. Secretary of State. “Especially working downtown, if I had to come at a late hour, I didn’t feel safe. And there was always the issue of homeless people using the lower level stairwells as restrooms.”

Lee Ann Kornegay, 53, of Columbia, said she’s getting used to garages as she is compelled to use them.

“I am starting to love them!” the independent filmmaker wrote. “I use them all the time downtown now. No more driving around the block five times to find a place. But I think they could be designed a little better.”

Most of the complaints apply to older parking garages. They often have tight turnarounds, low ceilings, enclosed stairwells where intruders can hide and are, indeed, a little like Gotham City.

“Not to mention the forbidding dark shadows and the insect-like buzz of the lighting,” said Owen Elliott, 27, a Columbia office manager.

Crime rare in garages

Forbidding interiors aside, Columbia parking director John Spade said that personal crimes are rare in garages.

“In the 15 years I’ve been involved in parking, we’ve had one purse snatching in all of the garages combined,” he said.

The association of personal crimes to parking garages may have more to do with Hollywood than reality.

“I wonder if there really are more crimes in parking garages or if they just make us feel creepy because they’ve been the setting for crimes in so many TV and movie scenes,” reader Laura Dollies said in a Facebook post.

Columbia filmmaker Wade Sellers said garages make great sets.

“There are a lot of interesting visual choices,” he said. “They’re dark with lots of shadows. They’re echoy – all those squealing tires. They’re mysterious in color. They’re mysterious in black-and-white. They offer a lot of cinematic options.”

But there are real concerns, particularly in older garages.

Auto break-ins are more frequent in garages without security cameras – albeit the break-in rates are lower than parking on the street. And homeless people bed down in the more sparsely used garages at night.

The homeless usually begin to show up late at night. At 5 a.m., parking services personnel sweep each garage and ask them to leave. They also dispose of about a pickup truck and a half of trash in the process.

“But we are seeing less of a problem with that,” Spade said, as more homeless are taking advantage of the city’s winter shelter.

Newer garages are less forbidding

But those challenges are being lessened in newer parking garages, such as the Park Street garage adjacent to the Hilton Columbia Downtown, the Lincoln Street garage across from the Columba Police Department and the Peter J. Cannon garage at Taylor and Sumter streets.

They have taller ceilings, glassed in stairwells that are harder to hide in, security cameras, self-pay centers and even electric car-charging stations. The more open and airy the garage, Spade said, the more people will be willing to use them.

“We have increased the lighting in garages,” he said. “We have emergency call boxes in all garages that go directly to 911.”

Security cameras have been included in the garages at Lincoln, Park and Taylor streets, and are being installed in the Cannon garage.

In addition to being more inviting to motorists, garages also are a good value, Spade said.

The first hour of parking is free in the Lincoln Street garage. And all of the garages, with the exception of the Park Street Garage, are free after 5 or 6 p.m. and on weekends.

If you want to charge your electric car, “that’s free, too,” Spade said. “You just have to pay for the parking, unless it’s at night or on the weekends.”

Spade said that as more people begin to use parking garages, especially the new ones, their attitudes will change. And as surface parking downtown diminishes, more people will have to use them.

“It’s a sign of economic growth,” Spade said.

Cash, credit or SmartCard?

The Columbia Parking Services Department sells SmartCards – plastic, credit-like cards that can be used at a discount at both parking meters and garages in Columbia with meters or self-pay centers.

The department also sells tokens, mostly to businesses who can give them to customers.

SmartCards and tokens are available for sale at the Parking Service Department’s Customer Service Office at 820 Washington St., located in the Lincoln Street garage.

Customers also can buy them at some participating downtown and Five Points merchants and the gift shop at the Columbia Museum of Art and collections counter at Washington Square, 1136 Washington St.

One token gives a motorist a full hour on any of the city’s 4,600 parking meters. Tokens can be purchased in bags of 50 for $35, a savings of $2.50.

Smart Cards are the size of a credit card, so they fit conveniently in a wallet. They can be purchased in $20, $50, $75, $100 and $150 amounts. The SmartCard itself costs $5.

Once the original amount has been used, the card can be recharged at the Customer Service Office or at the Cannon garage self pay center.

Customers who purchase SmartCards will receive a time bonus of 6 percent.

To pay for parking with a SmartCard, simply insert it into the slot on the parking meter. The meter will read the microchip embedded in the card and the meter will show how much money is left on the card. By leaving the card in the meter, the card will purchase time in 20-minute increments every few seconds until you pull it out.

For additional information, call (803) 545-4015.

Parking prices

Here are the prices for all eight city of Columbia parking garages.

Arsenal Hill, 1812 Lincoln St., 75 cents an hour, free after 5 p.m. and weekends.

Cannon, 1227 Taylor St., 75 cents an hour, free after 5 p.m. and weekends.

Lady Street, 1100 Lady St., $1 for first and second half hours and $1 an hour after, free after 6 p.m. and weekends

Lincoln Street, 820 Washington St., first hour free, $1 an hour after, $3 maximum after 5 p.m. and weekends

Park Street, 1007 Park St., $1 for first and second half hours and $1 an hour after.

Sumter Street, 1400 Sumter St., $1 for first and second half hours and $1 an hour after, free after 6 p.m. and weekends

Taylor Street, 1600 Assembly St., 75 cents an hour and free after 5 p.m. and weekend

Washington Street, 1100 Washington St., 75 cents an hour, free after 5 p.m. and weekends

SOURCE: City of Columbia Parking Services Department

* The University of South Carolina did not respond to requests for specifics on their garages

What do you think?

“They’re a great way to protect my car from the weather … but they suck for getting out of a big event like a baseball game.” Nancy Weil

“I like that I can stay as long as I need without getting a parking ticket.” Kathryn Braun Fenner

“I used to think they were eyesores, but now I find them beautiful because it means plentiful parking.” Nicki Pendleton Wood

“I’d take extra time to find street parking even if it meant I had to walk longer.” Samatha Bihl

“I only like them if I can get a space close to an elevator.” Georgia De La Garza

“I’d like to see less money spent on parking garages and more money spent on developing public transportation – but that just isn’t going to happen.” Erin Curtis

SOURCE: Informal poll conducted by The State

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