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March 6, 2013

Ferndale officials extend free parking until March 11

By Jeremy Selweski
C & G Staff Writer

In response to complaints about Ferndale’s new digital
parking system, the city is offering free downtown parking
through March 11 while officials continue to address issues
with the system. The City Council also voted to purchase
14 more digital pay stations, like the one pictured here,
in order to deal with high demand for parking.

FERNDALE — The city will continue to offer free parking throughout the downtown area while officials work out the kinks in Ferndale’s beleaguered new parking system.

The free parking deal first went into effect Feb. 21 and was extended through the weekend. Then, during a lengthy parking discussion at a well-attended Feb. 25 meeting, the Ferndale City Council decided to extend free parking until March 11, hoping that any lingering problems would be worked out by that time.

Due to the higher-than-expected demand for parking, which has led to many reports of long lines in the city’s busiest lots, the council also opted to purchase 14 additional digital pay stations to supplement the 19 machines that have already been installed all over the downtown district. The council voted 4-0 in favor of this purchase, as Councilman Scott Galloway was absent from the meeting.

Still, while the new pay stations will be charged to Ferndale’s auto parking fund rather than its general fund, they will not come cheap. According to City Manager April Lynch, the 14 extra machines will cost about $170,000 to have delivered and installed within the next few weeks. In addition, by extending its free parking offer to the public, the city is costing itself around $12,000 per week in parking revenue.

Mayor Dave Coulter stressed to the audience that the city is fully committed to making the new system work and solving any problems. He supported providing free parking while the glitches are being fixed.

“This is not a learning curve issue; this is our issue,” the mayor said. “We don’t have enough (multi-space parking) units, we don’t have enough lighting, and the machines aren’t working to our satisfaction. So I think it’s incumbent upon us not to start charging for this system until we get it right.”

Councilman Mike Lennon agreed. “I think March 11 is a good date, but I wouldn’t want to go much farther than that,” he said. “This gives people a chance to visit and shop and dine in Ferndale now, free of charge.”

The council approved the creation of the city’s new Ferndale Park+ system in September, voting unanimously to award a $330,000 contract to the Wixom-based company Traffic & Safety Control Systems. Ferndale Park+ — which features 19 digital pay stations replacing more than 900 individual coin 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.

But as Lynch noted, the digital system has allowed city officials to collect valuable data. Over a seven-day period in mid-February, the downtown pay stations handled more than 15,000 parking transactions, nearly half of which took place at the five machines in the West Troy and Withington lots. In addition, more than 60 percent of those transactions occurred during the peak times between 5 and 10 p.m. on Thursday, Friday and Saturday.

Lynch pointed out that the industry standard for efficient public parking lots is 15 to 20 transactions per hour. However, in Ferndale’s busiest downtown lots, the city is experiencing 60 to 80 transactions per hour during peak times.

Numerous members of the audience expressed their frustrations about the new parking system. Business owners, in particular, took issue with the higher parking rates of Ferndale Park+, arguing that they are driving customers away, in addition to being too expensive for them and their employees to afford.

Karen Tardiff, owner of Blue Moon Vintage at 250 W. Nine Mile Road, told the council that she was already regretting her decision to return to the Detroit area after 22 years spent living and working in Seattle.

“I just want to let you know that I hate this new system, and all of my customers hate it, too,” she said. “There is no way — I’m sorry, Ms. Lynch — that we are going to have a ‘phenomenal’ parking system. You’re dreaming; you’re just listening to some sales pitch about what you think it’s going to be. I know there are going to continue to be lines (at the pay stations) because I have no faith in this at all. You’re killing this town, and I’m sorry that I moved back here and opened up my business in August, because this is a mess.”

Oak Park resident Laura Wicke believes that the implementation of Ferndale Park+ was executed poorly and recommended that city officials roll it back to include just a couple of parking lots. She also contended that the city did not need expensive digital machines in order to confirm the already common knowledge that downtown Ferndale is busiest on Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings.

“With regard to the increased parking rates,” Wicke added, “most of the response that I’ve heard from the city is that these new rates are comparable with those in cities like Royal Oak and Birmingham. But the reason that my family and I chose (to live in) Oak Park was because it’s closer to Ferndale, and specifically because Ferndale is not Royal Oak or Birmingham. That’s why we’re happy to be here. Ferndale is different, and it’s wonderfully different.”

For Garry Andrews, president of the Ferndale Historical Society, much of the problem with the new system lies with the actions of the Ferndale Downtown Development Authority. He argued that the DDA’s spending has gotten “way out of hand” and that its employees have been unresponsive to the needs of business owners.

“We’ve had to lay off police officers, we’ve had to lay off firefighters, we’ve all had to tighten our belts, and every time we turn around, we’ve got new things being spent on by the DDA that frankly are not helping this city in the least,” Andrews said. “And yet we’re being forced to implement this new system. If the DDA’s directors and managers had stepped out of their door and talked to any of us who own, run or operate a business in this city, and were more in tune with what people wanted … this would not have happened.”

Yet despite the high volume of complaints that the city has received in the past month, members of council reiterated that Ferndale Park+ is here to stay.

“One of the reasons that we went to this new system in the first place was to make data-driven decisions about our parking needs,” said Councilwoman Melanie Piana. “I know that the implementation has not gone as planned, but I get the impression that some people think there is an opportunity … to rescind these new (pay stations) and start over. I don’t think that’s the policy direction that the City Council would like to go, pulling back the whole system because it’s not working well, rather than trying to figure out how to make it work better.”

Coulter put it more bluntly.

“We are not going back and putting old meters in,” he said. “We are committed to this new system, but we are committed to getting it right. We won’t launch it until we are confident that we’ve got the proper equipment and the capacity to do it right, but it’s going to be this system.”

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