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City parking crisis: less talk, more action

What would happen to Birmingham if they ran out of places for people to park their cars? It’s more than a rhetorical question, as on-street parking, term “transient” parking in planner parlance as it is designed for those coming into the city on a short-term basis, with one- or two-hour long meters, is always at a premium, and the city’s five parking structures are nearing capacity on a frequent basis. What was once joked as “What a good problem to have,” meaning people were coming into downtown Birmingham to shop, is no longer a joke, as restaurants, bistros, and primarily, office workers, fill the structures to their rooftops on a daily basis. Every single one of the parking structures have wait list for monthly passes, which are for those who work in the city, in retail or commercial jobs. As we all know, this is not a new problem. But it is at a crisis point, and we must point, and shake, our fingers at city staff and commissioners who have permitted it to reach this point through their inaction. There are committees and ad hoc study groups that have been looking at what to do for two or three years – perhaps even longer, and reporting back to the commission with a variety of recommendations. For some reason, the city’s engineering staff repeatedly reports there really isn’t a problem. This naval gazing must end. It is impacting everyone who works, lives and recreates in Birmingham. The city must pick up its pace, and work immediately to find a solution that is proactive as well as reactive. One reason the city is at such a maximum capacity is that there is a parking assessment district in the downtown area, meaning that landlords and businesses (but never residents) pay an assessment to have parking available. All well and good when it was established years ago, but as buildings have been demolished and built higher and higher, with officespace that adds more workers per square foot, developers do not have to add any parking spaces to their new buildings – only for any residential space, two per unit. And that is definitely unfairly taxing the system as a whole. We suggest the city take a look at implementing an impact fee on developers who want to take down small buildings and create new, larger buildings with more floors. Impact fees are popular out west, but were actually begun in the late 1940s in Illinois. Their purpose is to assess a fee on new or proposed development to pay for all or a portion of the costs of providing public services to a new development, from parking to increased needs of public safety. Developers build in the fee to their costs of development, and it helps offset the economic burden to the municipality that comes with growth. It should at least be part of the discussion among city officials. But most importantly, the city needs to make some decisions and take action now to resolve this problem.

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