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City's parking issue a victim of pandemic

Parking in downtown Birmingham has long been an issue, with shoppers complaining about a lack of enough on-street parking – especially in front of their favorite stores, and of a shortage of parking in the city's five municipal parking decks. The issue reached a boiling point in the last decade as commercial occupancy exploded with a change nationally in how many businesses utilize space.


As recently as a year ago, all five parking garages were almost completely full during the work week, as employees of businesses, retailers and restaurants filled them, many with coveted monthly parking passes. Parking spaces were reserved on the first floor for “transient” parkers – or in everyday language, people who were coming into Birmingham to shop, visit Baldwin Public Library, Shain Park, go to a restaurant, or do business at one of the hundreds of offices in Birmingham which have revitalized the city.


At most of the parking structures, there was a several month to several year wait for businesses to acquire a monthly parking pass, which cost anywhere from $55 a month for those parking at the Chester parking garage to $70 a month at Pierce and N. Old Woodward. There were about 3,800 monthly parking passes in the system prior to the pandemic. According to a Downtown Parking Strategies and Recommendations report as presented by Nelson Nygaard Consultants to the city's ad hoc parking committee in 2018, Birmingham's downtown parking system consists of about 4,944 publicly owned spaces, of which 3,423 are in the five public parking structures; 1,272 are metered, on street; and 391 are in five surface parking lots.


Despite popular and repeated misrepresentation, the city's parking system is completely self-funded. There is no resident tax revenue in the parking system, so while it is desirable for residents and other visitors to have access to parking, there is no priority for them. The city's downtown parking is open and available to everyone coming into the city.


And that is even more important today, as the parking system is undergoing a systemic change due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and it is too soon to know if, like other institutions, it is temporary or not.


During last spring's statewide shutdown, all parking in the city was made free by the Birmingham City Commission; as of June, on-street parking at meters was once again enforced, while parking in the structures has remained free, in a nod to retailers, who are experiencing a devastating once-in-a-centennial hit to business, and to restaurants, which are repeatedly being hit with closures and the need for access for carry-out business.


But the major driver for the parking system, love 'em or not, are office workers, who largely have been working from home since the middle of March. With coronavirus numbers skyrocketing nationally, as well as locally, and experts such as Dr. Anthony Fauci projecting the worse to come in December, January and February, the recommendation for businesses to have their workers work from home if they can will continue at least through the first quarter of 2021. At this point, the parking garages remain free through December 31, 2020, with reassessment as necessary.


Through the end of December 2020, it was estimated the city was taking about a $224,000 hit a month from the monthly parking passes. At the end of September, the impact to the parking fund reserve was $1,445,580. The parking fund balance, as of June 2020, totaled $20.4 million.


When offices reopen, needs may change the demands upon the parking system – it is still an unknown. Many offices nationwide, notably creative agencies, have seen several people working side-by-side in open spaces. Despite the advances of vaccines, designs of offices are changing, with less people in the same space. And the ability to work remotely may change the need for workers to always be in place on a daily basis.


But these are discussions for another day. It is all the more reason why it is wise for the Birmingham City Commission to wait to make further decisions and alterations to the city's parking system, and as well as to rely on the knowledge incoming city manager Tom Markus will bring with him when he starts at the beginning of 2021.

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