Downtown takes parking into 21st century

By Taylor West

Downtown in the Classic City — comprised largely of curbside parking — is making it easier for people to get where they are going.

A move to make simpler by replacing the old coin meters with modernized digital IPS meters had been on the table since before Downtown Athens Parking Director Chuck Horton took the helm, but it really gained momentum last year.

“It wasn’t anything new I just brought it back up — it was just something that needed to be done,” Horton said. “The machines that were on the street were just way past their time.”

Now, finding an old school meter in downtown Athens is next to impossible, a reality that will streamline the parking process for anyone who ventures out to one of the many bars, shops or restaurants.

Athens, however, is not the first city to follow the trend of convenience through modernization with the IPS meters.

San Diego introduced 51 of the high-tech devices for a four-month trial in 2009, according to the San Diego government website. And according to the City of Berkeley website, North Berkeley, a neighborhood in Berkeley, Calif., ran a pilot program with 30 of the meters in January 2010.

These new solar-powered meters, which made their way through downtown over the last couple of months, take credit and debit cards as well as the traditional pocket change.  Now those who find themselves in the historic city center can use the new meters on most streets.

Even the pay and display boxes are on their way out. Horton said it is in the works for Clayton Street and Broad Street to follow the lead of the rest of downtown and replace the boxes with the new IPS meters.

Horton said the boxes are a real problem for downtown Athens parking — just the act of having to find a box, pay, get a ticket and return to your car generates complaints.

“A lot of the folks don’t like them. It is not uncommon to have five complaints in a morning based on what happened the night before,” he said. “I just don’t get those kinds of complaints from the IPS meters.”

John McArthur, a downtown Athens attorney who works across the street from the courthouse, said he likes the new meters better than the old ones and better than the pay and display boxes.

“[The pay and display’s] are OK. I kind of like [the IPS meters] better because you don’t have to go looking for the box and print the receipt,” he said.

Scott Cassady, a retired Athenian, shares McArthur’s distaste for the pay and display meters, saying they are “a pain in the butt.”

“Whatever happened to where you just walked up and stuck your coins in and walked away?” he said. “[The IPS meters] actually look like they make sense. It’s way better than the other one.”

And on top of being a grievance for those who frequent downtown, the pay and display boxes are difficult and costly to fix when they break. Horton said Athens doesn’t have the in-house tools to fix the machines so the city has to call in people from Norcross.

The IPS meters pose much less of a problem. Horton said they break less frequently and are easier to fix and to monitor.

“It will send a message to my email if they are jammed if they are having some problems,” Horton said. “For us its easy to trouble shoot them you can switch them out pretty easy.”

In addition to the ability to pay with credit and debit cards as well as the traditional coins, users can pay for the new machines by calling in on an app and paying on the phone.

“I can pull up on their software and check the amount of money that’s coming in,” Horton said.

A given meter’s income varies by location — the area by the courthouse doesn’t get as much business until court is in session or there is an event at the Classic Center. On the other hand, Horton said the meters on Lumpkin Street, Jackson Street and S. Washington Street “really get used.”

Athens-Clarke County purchased 510 IPS meters at $465 a piece — a total of just over $230,000 — that arrived in the middle of last October. Horton said of the vote in favor of the purchase, “I think it was unanimous.

And the opinion on the amendment to the downtown landscape met with positivity from Athens’ citizens, too.

“They are well received,” Horton said. “I like them and I think the customers like them because … they can read them and it’s easy to use them. Your generation is going to use plastic; the older generation may not want to do that.”

Barbara Brown, an employee of Downtown Athens Parking, has the job of writing tickets for the vehicles which are illegally parked — whether in an off-limits parking space or with an expired meter.  She said the dual nature of the meters makes them easy to use for Athenians of all ages and backgrounds.

“They are easier for the older people and easier for the students, you know, it’s old school and new school,” she said. “Credit cards, five cents, ten cents and quarters — you can still get by with it.”

McArthur said he supports the new, high-tech meters’ downtown takeover because they are convenient and good for the price. His only complaint — “I wish they would take dollar bills too.”


Park it, pal… Downtown!

Kathryn Lookofsky doesn’t know what she wants for dinner — but at least her meal ticket is paid.

Next month marks her 5-year-anniversary as director of the Athens Downtown Development Authority, and as she peruses Kroger’s isles for the possible menu for the evening’s table-makings, she goes over a few of the changes she has already brought to the table.

“Our old parking meters — the ones that you twist, the manual-style ones — we bought those used in 1985,” Lookofsky said. “They’re so antiquated that it’s really hard to find new parts for them when they break. We had to figure out what we were going to replace them with.”

An answer to the problem of the ancient coin swallowers came in the form of sixteen spanking-new parking kiosks installed in March of last year on Broad and Clayton streets between Thomas and Lumpkin at $11,000 each – a price that included shipping and installation

Another project helmed by Lookofsky dealt similarly with outdated citation practices.

Athens-Clarke County did a study three years ago comparing the city of Athens to others of comparable size and demographics, only to find that the citizens of Athens were paying remarkably lower citation rates.

The city decided to make an adjustment.

“One of the problems with our fines originally was that people just considered it the price of parking — it wasn’t a fine,” Lookofsky said. “Once we raised the rates it actually became a fine, and people paid attention to the rules and said, ‘Oh, I better move, I’m going to get a ticket.’”

Three dollars — the old rate — was bumped up to $10, more than tripling the price of parking past a meter’s time limit.

Increased fines coupled with the new kiosks have contributed considerably toward the coffers of Athens-Clarke County’s downtown governing element, but Lookofsky contends the funds are not a source of profit for her outfit.

“I think there’s a lot of misunderstanding there,” Lookofsky said. “The whole purpose of managing the parking is to make sure that people have a place to park and it’s not being abused, and that the parking turns out. A lot of people think that it’s a revenue source, and it’s just not.”

Lookofsky and the ADDA get paid a fee for managing parking, “but as far as making money off of parking, we don’t,” she said.

The ADDA is not technically a governmental body, though it does have the ability to distribute taxpayer funds for public works projects, such as using SPLOST funds totaling over $6 million in a joint-effort with the development company Batson-Cook in building a seven-story commercial parking deck.

“We serve as a liaison between the downtown business community and the local government,” Lookofsky said.

But parking is only one of Lookofsky’s jurisdictions in the downtown area — she may hold the keys to the kingdom, but another woman manages the locks.

“It’s been tremendous how the revenue has improved,” said Laura Miller, director of Parking Services, speaking on the parking kiosks that have been in place for almost a year. “Better than 20 percent.”

Such an increase in revenue comes from the fact that, as Miller put it, “Everyone must pay to park.”

Under the old meter system, a customer would park, put money in and do whatever downtown. The meter would still tick to the good when the customer decided to leave, allowing for that time to be used by another visitor to the downtown area once the spot had been vacated.

Plus, it was hard to get an accurate accounting of money with the wind-up jobs — the little coin catchers inside acted almost like beggars’ cups.

“So many hands were in the money on the way to the bank,” Miller said. “The new machines will tell you to the penny how much money has been put in them, and when you take it to the bank there better be that much there.”

The number of citations since the installation of the kiosks has increased alongside revenue from people simply feeding money — or debit and credit cards, a new convenience for downtown parkers — to the new machines.

There were a total of 20,110 expired meter citations written for the period of October 1, 2009, through the day before the kiosks were put in on March 29,2010. These citations account for a grand total of fines at $201,130.

Comparatively, there were a total of 22,122 expired meter citations written for the period of October 1, 2009 through March 8, 2011, and these citations account for a total of $329,423.

The difference between the two periods of time shows that the kiosks have brought potentially extra
revenue in the order of nearly $130,000. One drawback of these numbers is that not everyone has paid their tickets. For example, the balance still due for the 2010-2011 period is $206,845.

All of the revenue collected from parking downtown stays downtown: “Every last penny,” Miller said. The funds go toward downtown enhancements, such as holiday lighting and decorative banners hung from street lights.

And who is responsible for these amassed fines — the delineator of lines crossed, and ultimate regulator of bought time?

Nick Andersen makes his way, car by car, up the street. He is checking meters when there are meters to check and kiosk printout slips when they are present on dashboards.

A long stick is in his hand, and attached to the end of that stick is a piece of chalk that’s “more like a crayon.” This goes on the tire of a vehicle.

When a vehicle moves, the chalk-crayon hybrid comes off of the tire. If the vehicle doesn’t move, but the ticker does — into the red — the driver of the vehicle could get a ticket.

“I am called Parking Violations Officer,” Andersen said. “Nicknames, I’ve heard many: meter maid, meter butler, ticket fairy. Those are all okay with me.”

Andersen sums up nicely the ground up view of parking downtown — puts the meat back on the bone, so to speak: it’s all about the money.

“There are merchants on the board of directors that make policy for the company,” Andersen said. “This is really a lot about the merchants being able to have good traffic in their business, keep the spaces turning over.”