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Saturday, January 28, 2023

Strategic Downtown Parking Study Reveals Real Problem with Parking in Downtown Winter Haven 

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Strategic Downtown Parking Study Reveals Real Problem with Parking in Downtown Winter Haven

by James Coulter

Have you ever driven to Downtown Winter Haven and nearly pulled out your hair in frustration trying to find a good place to park? You might think the problem is the lack of available parking spaces, but the real problem may be the lack of conveniently-placed parking spaces.

That was the finding of a strategic downtown parking study unveiled and discussed during a public meeting hosted at the Winter Haven Public Library on Thursday evening. The meeting was hosted by Walker Consultants, a qualified parking and mobility consultant firm hired by the City of Winter Haven to help “effectively maximize existing and future public parking availability,” as mentioned in a public notice.

To assist the city with this initiative, Walker Consultants conducted a study of the downtown area to determine the number of public parking spaces. They also analyzed the average availability of these spaces by studying the downtown area during an average workweek. The study was conducted the week before Spring Break, as it provided them an optimal window for which to determine parking availability during the average weekday, explained Thomas Szubka, Senior Consultant.

The City of Winter Haven, in its public notice about the event, explained the background and findings of the study: “Bound by Avenue D NW to the north, Avenue C SW to the south, 6th Street SW to the west, and 1st Street South to the east, the City currently provides as many as 1,300± public parking spaces under a combined on- and off-street mix. Approximately 270± public parking spaces are being provided by the City’s parking structure located in the central vicinity of 3rd Street NW and Avenue A NW. It has been estimated that this parking inventory is often occupied at 70% during typical peak operating hours.”

Jim Corbett, Director of Planning, averred during his presentation that the main problem with parking downtown had less to do with the lack of parking spaces than it did with the lack of conveniently located spaces near the places where most people wanted to visit downtown—or, as he succinctly put it, it was a walking problem, not a parking problem.

“I do not think there is any sort of global parking challenge downtown,” he said. “I think there are areas where density does exist, obviously. Those are the areas where parking is limited in the sense because of the capacity that is occupying those options…Most folks, it is our human nature, we want to park next door to where we are visiting, whether it is a restaurant or professional office. That is our choice. But the challenge is getting people comfortable walking two to three blocks as not a problem.”

Corbett also believed the solution to this problem was less about building new parking structures such as parking garages, but rather through public-private partnerships with new developments. He mentioned many new developments, including the new Raindance Apartments, that could complicate matters if parking availability is not addressed.

“It is really just the city working with private developers,” he said. “The city permits the development projects and council commission would authorize moving forward the approval of those projects. I think there is an opportunity for the city to work with the private developer to do a partnership if we are talking about building inventory for private development, just an opportunity with the city to partner with them and be able to provide that inventory through the development itself.”

After the presentation, the meeting was open to public comment to gain input and feedback about downtown parking. More than a dozen residents attended the meeting to express their thought and feelings about the matter.

Brian Rich, the owner of Slate Billiards and the Colonial building, plans on opening a new business in the downtown area. His main concern is with providing additional parking to accommodate his new customers and staff, and he felt that the area did not provide sufficient parking opportunities.

Another attendee, a local woman who has lived in the community for quite some time, insisted that the area near BB&T along Magnolia Ave. provides a prime area to place a facility to accommodate parking for the developments down there.

“You don’t have to be super smart to see the growth coming that way and that we will have a terrible problem if you don’t have something good down there,” she said. “So, let’s get creative and beautiful and inventive and do something good right there where everything is coming.”

Though the turnout was small, the meeting provided good and even passionate feedback from the local community, Corbett said. Their next plan of action will be to work with the city to incorporate this feedback and their findings moving forward into a plan to facilitate parking. They will also host a follow-up meeting in the near future to share more info and offer a strategic plan coming forth in June.

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