A plan for parking

High demand, changing laws behind tweaks for structures, valets and meters

By: Tiffany Esshaki | Birmingham - Bloomfield Eagle | Published July 27, 2016

 While disabled drivers can park at any available meter, specially marked metered spots are being installed throughout downtown Birmingham.

While disabled drivers can park at any available meter, specially marked metered spots are being installed throughout downtown Birmingham.

Photo by Tiffany Esshaki

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BIRMINGHAM — Rooftop valet parking, higher structure fees, smart meter trials and paid handicapped parking are just some of the changes that have been implemented in downtown Birmingham since the beginning of the month.

Take a drive along North Old Woodward, near Maple, at any time of day and you’ll likely see for yourself that the city’s main entertainment district is booming. The parking changes are the city’s temporary response to high parking demand that often exceeds availability.

“These are short-term solutions, knowing we are working on long-term solutions with potential parking deck enhancements or new parking decks and things,” said Mayor Pro Tem Mark Nickita at the Birmingham City Commission’s June 6 meeting.


Adding space
Starting in early June, the city introduced valet parking at the rooftop level of the North Old Woodward parking structure during the peak demand hours of 9 a.m.-3 p.m. Drivers who aren’t able to locate a space on the lower levels of the structure can turn their car over to a valet stand driver stationed at the entrance to the top level. The valet operator will park the car for vehicle owners at no extra cost.

But the service is more than just an amenity — it’s a way to pack in about 50 additional cars than the rooftop typically holds. The service could cost the city a little more than $52,000 annually.


An increase 20 years in the making
But parking at all of downtown’s structures will run drivers double what they’re used to. At the recommendation of City Engineer Paul O’Meara and the Birmingham Ad Hoc Parking Development Committee, which was formed to strategize for the city’s growing parking needs, the City Commission unanimously voted June 6 to increase rates to $2 per hour, maxing out at $10 per day. The change went into effect July 1, before which the rate was $1 per hour. As always, the first two hours of parking in any structure are free.

The commission also voted that evening to increase the price of monthly parking permits at structures, and hike hourly meter rates along Chester Street from 50 cents to $1 per hour.

O’Meara told the commission that parking prices at Birmingham structures hadn’t been raised since 1996, and the higher prices will hopefully encourage employees at downtown offices to park at alternate locations — such as nearby churches with vacant lots during daytime hours — instead of taking up spaces in the structures, where people on quick visits downtown will look for parking while they shop and dine.

The commissioners agreed that structures are underpriced.

“Part of the reason we have the demand is because we’re way underpricing,” said Commissioner Carroll DeWeese.


New thoughts on handicapped spots
Now that road, sewer and water line upgrades are finished on Hamilton Avenue — a project that had the corridor torn up since the spring — parking spaces and meters are being placed back on the street.

The stretch is the first in the city to be made compliant with new regulations under the Americans with Disabilities Act to provide one reserved, accessible parking space on the street for every 25 spaces on a block. The three new specially reserved handicapped spots on Hamilton are marked with blue pavement markings — and blue parking meters.

The meters have come as a shock to some handicapped drivers, who have long enjoyed free parking at any meter in the city with no time limit. At any meter, handicapped drivers are now subject to standard parking fees, at the blue meters or regular green meters that are placed throughout the downtown district.

But many residents, particularly seniors, have expressed concerns over the new meters, according to Mayor Rackeline Hoff, who said she’s met with members of the Birmingham Senior Men’s Club and The Community House’s Women’s Club.

“I’ve gone over the new rates in the parking structures and the handicapped meters,” Hoff explained. “They’re primarily concerned about having to walk too far to get to their destination.”

Many drivers with a disability wrongly believe that they’ll be required to park at the new handicapped spots along the street, Hoff said, and they are worried they’ll have to park farther away at a handicapped meter if one close to their destination is filled.

“This doesn’t mean they’ll have to walk any farther,” she said. “Handicapped people can park at any meter. They will have to pay now, though, and they will have to abide by the time limit. That’s the big difference.”

O’Meara told the Eagle earlier this year that Birmingham has been behind the times by not charging standard parking rates for drivers with disability plates or placards — most nearby municipalities already have meters at reserved handicapped spaces.

He added that hopefully such parkers will be incentivized to park at handicapped spaces within structures, where the first two hours of parking are free, since they won’t be able to park for free at any meter anymore. That could free up spaces on the street for other drivers.

Drivers with a valid yellow sticker on their disabled parking permit are exempt from the new rules, though, and can park wherever they like without a time limit. Stickers for applicable drivers are obtained at the Michigan Secretary of State’s Office.


A smart move
It’s been nearly four years since Birmingham first signed on with Parkmobile, a smartphone payment app for metered parking. At their July 11 meeting, commissioners voted unanimously to see if parking could be made even easier by signing up for a monthlong trial period of 16 smart meters to be placed along Martin Street, just outside City Hall.

The meters would allow users who don’t have the app or coins to pay for parking with a credit card.

Birmingham Police Chief Mark Clemence said the city has been approached by vendors offering several options, including pay stations that require customers to park in a space and then register and pay for their time at a shared pay station placed on that block.

“(The Advisory Parking Committee) felt most people would want the meter to be right in front of their car so they can pay and get on their way,” he said, adding that it’s estimated that individual smart meters would actually be cheaper than a multi-space system.

“It’s about half a million (dollars) to go with smart meters and $2.5 million to $3 million to go with pay stations.”

But alas, there is still an increase from the traditional meter system, and that cost would fall on the customer, Hoff lamented during the meeting.

“The residents I’ve talked to, they’re not seeing this as all user-friendly and good for the city. I really think we have to be a little sensitive,” she said. “As these (technological) advances are used, there are additional fees for the user in every one of these cases. Our rates are low, but they’re not low for everyone.”

Birmingham has a total of 1,251 parking meters. The smart meter trial begins in early August.


Valet goes into extra innings
In late March, the Birmingham Shopping District announced that it would offer visitors free valet parking for two hours at North Old Woodward, near Hamilton, to encourage customers to patronize businesses in the area while Hamilton was under construction.

The program was a wild success, according to BSD Executive Director John Heiney, but the free ride can’t last forever. The valet service, provided by In-House Valet, will continue at the decidedly higher fee of $8 for four hours, then $5 for every additional hour. Customers can also pay $5 for 30-minute short-term parking.

“The service was free during Hamilton Avenue construction because the shopping district was subsidizing the service 100 percent. This was a budgeted expense in support of the construction effort,” said Heiney in a prepared statement. “After Hamilton opened, the plan was to discontinue the service, and the BSD budgeted accordingly. However, due to business and customer requests, the city authorized the valet service to continue, but at a market rate. The BSD subsidy ended with construction, and no additional funds were budgeted.”

He added that free valet will return for the holidays, and again for major road construction on Old Woodward in 2017.

For more information on all of these changes, visit www.bhamgov.org/parking.

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