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February 20, 2013

City, DDA tackle downtown parking complaints

By Jeremy Selweski
C & G Staff Writer

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City, DDA tackle downtown parking complaints
Drivers must enter the number of their parking spot at each digital pay station.

FERNDALE — The city has received frequent and vehement complaints since the launch of its new downtown parking system, but officials are working to address any problems as quickly as possible.

The Ferndale Park+ system — which includes 19 digital pay stations replacing more than 900 individual meters in the city’s public parking lots, as well as higher overall parking rates and a pricing method based on user demand — has been fully up and running since Feb. 7. Since that time, however, it has not been warmly received by downtown business owners, visitors, employees or residents.

Concerns galore
The greatest areas of frustration with Ferndale Park+ have involved people waiting in long lines out in the cold to pay for parking, insufficient lighting at some of the pay stations, inability to use the city’s pay-by-phone Parkmobile system and the price increases for both daily parking rates and long-term parking passes.

Chris Johnston, co-owner of Woodward Avenue Brewers, The Emory and The Loving Touch, brought up these issues and others to the Ferndale City Council at its Feb. 11 meeting. Johnston said he believes that the new system is “anti-Ferndale,” especially when it comes to the higher parking rates. While the cost was increased from 50 cents per hour to 75 cents per hour in most downtown parking lots, it was also boosted to $1 per hour in all lots after 7 p.m. on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays.

“That just seems really high, and I don’t think that Ferndale should be on the high end of things,” Johnston said. “This isn’t Birmingham. We talk about competing with cities like that, we talk about competing with malls where it’s free to park, but to drive the price up by double is a lot. It doesn’t seem fair that we’re penalizing the customers who come in to go to the bars and restaurants, or anybody for that matter. … I’m sure that this will work out, but I would like to see those parking rates come down because I don’t feel like they represent Ferndale as well as they could.”

Johnston asserted that the new parking system was not planned out as well as it should have been, which has led to so many reported problems coming in all at once.

“I don’t understand why all the lots were done at one time, why we just didn’t try something to see if it worked and then replicated that in other lots if it was successful,” he said. “I don’t know why it was done in the middle of winter instead of a time when it’s more convenient for people to stand outside and figure out how this new system works. I don’t know why some of the parking meters were not left in the parking lots while we were adjusting to this new system, so people could use either one until they got better at (the new system). … To me, it doesn’t really seem like this parking situation represents the city right now. It doesn’t seem fair, and it doesn’t seem honest.”

Rose Szwed, owner of Step On Bus Tours, added in a subsequent interview that she is “absolutely livid” about the new parking system. She fears that it will cause customers to become so aggravated that they stop coming to downtown Ferndale, motivate small business owners to move out of the city and deter new businesses from moving in.

“I just think the greed being shown by the city here is abysmal,” Szwed said. “I was so angry that I called the (Ferndale Downtown Development Authority) and told them that I might need to take the bus or ride my bike into work because the parking passes are so expensive now. Ferndale is such a cool, fashionable place to be, but I think this parking experiment is going to come back to bite the city in the butt.”

Szwed believes that Ferndale officials did a poor job of preparing people for the steep learning curve that the new parking system entails and worries that it could take several months for everyone to adapt to it, if at all.

“I love the building where I’m at, but the city is driving me out,” she said. “I just keep thinking to myself, ‘Should I stay or should I go?’ We (business owners) have been the backbone of this community for a long time. But I don’t feel like the city cares about my business at all, so why should I care about them?”

Solutions on the way
According to Chris Hughes, communications and marketing manager for the Ferndale DDA, many of the concerns about Ferndale Park+ have already been addressed.

She noted that the problems with Parkmobile were largely the result of the stickers used to identify each parking zone not sticking to the posted signs because of the cold weather, an issue that has now been remedied. Meanwhile, the Ferndale Department of Public Works is working to install better lighting at many of the pay stations, a task that should be completed within a matter of days.

Hughes acknowledged that the DDA did not anticipate so many long lines at the machines, but that the new digital system has the advantage of providing them with data to address these situations quickly and effectively. For instance, there were more than 5,000 parking transactions made in downtown Ferndale on Friday, Feb. 8 and Saturday, Feb. 9 alone. Based on where the vast majority of these customers were parking, the DDA decided to add an extra pay station to both the Withington and West Troy parking lots by transferring them from lots with much lower demand.

Hughes believes that this change, along with the return of Parkmobile and customers’ increased fluency with Ferndale Park+, will cause those long lines to dissipate in the near future.

“I think that once people get through this initial startup phase and the dust settles, they will really embrace this new system,” she said. “The higher rates are just the reality of a concentric parking system, which is an accepted way of doing business that lots of cities all over the world use. The convenience of this system is stellar — instead of just paying with quarters, now people can use all different coins and bills, or their credit card, debit card or cellphone. This is a huge step toward the future for our entire downtown and for everyone who comes here.”

Mayor Dave Coulter agreed.

“The data we’ve received has shown us that we have a huge volume of customers, which is why we needed a new parking system in the first place,” he said. “We know that we have a parking congestion problem, but it’s really limited to only a handful of different lots. I think that moving forward, we will see these complaints taper off significantly; the number of calls and emails is already starting to decrease. My hope is that people will give us a few more weeks to get all the kinks worked out of the system before they make their final judgment.”

The mayor pointed out that part of the challenge was that the city was faced with more mechanical errors than expected at the pay stations. He also admitted that the initial rollout of Ferndale Park+ was not as well publicized as he and other city officials would have liked.

“We could have done a better job of communicating to people exactly what we were doing,” Coulter said. “I think a lot of these long lines have been caused by people’s unfamiliarity with the new system. We knew that there was going to be a learning curve with this system, so it will just take people a little more time to get used to it.”

Hughes stressed that the DDA is not worried about the new parking system having any long-term negative effects, such as driving customers or business owners away from downtown Ferndale.

“I think that our businesses are smarter than to think that (moving out) is a viable option,” she said. “Other cities don’t have these same parking challenges because they just aren’t as successful as we are. We have a thriving, vibrant, bustling downtown, and we are looking forward to even more continued growth.”

Hughes also noted that, in order for the DDA to receive all the data necessary to analyze the current downtown parking trends and identify areas of improvement, it was crucial for the city to install the new system all at once, rather than in multiple phases, as Johnston had suggested.

“When you’re doing a major overhaul like this, you have to commit to it,” she said. “If we tried to just do it one (parking) lot at a time, then we wouldn’t have all this great data to work with. We knew there were going to be some bugs when we first launched this system, but the important thing for people to know is that the machines are all up and running and working perfectly fine. The bottom line is that our parking system desperately needed to be upgraded. Everything that we’re doing is to make downtown Ferndale an even better place to be.”

You can reach C & G Staff Writer Jeremy Selweski at jSelweski@candgnews.com or at (586)218-5004.