Bye bye PARKatlanta?

click to enlarge COST OF DRIVING: PARKatlanta equipment gets installed in 2010. The company’s contract expires in September 2016. - JOEFF DAVIS/CL FILE

  • Joeff Davis/CL file
  • COST OF DRIVING: PARKatlanta equipment gets installed in 2010. The company’s contract expires in September 2016.

In late 2009, Atlanta encountered arguably its most unwelcome visitor since Sherman moseyed into town. It traveled in a white chariot of terror and was armed with electronic tablets spitting out pieces of paper demanding payment or a day in court. Even its name barked at you: PARKatlanta.

The private parking enforcer’s seven-year contract officially comes to an end in late September. The contract’s expiration may also signal the end of the city’s experiment with outsourcing meter maids and the multimillion-dollar citation enterprise. Mayor Kasim Reed has said he does not foresee PARKatlanta getting a second shot at the job.

Before the city makes that call it must decide what it hopes to achieve with on-street parking enforcement. Is it just a means to raise revenue? Does the city want to price parking to encourage people to leave cars at home and walk, bike, or use transit instead? Does it want to make it easier to park in certain districts to attract people to specific neighborhoods? Or should it take a page from the playbook of retired UCLA Planning Professor Donald Shoup, a guru regarding parking’s impact on cities, and put the cash people drop into meters to good use?

“On-street parking is such a huge, underutilized resource that needs to be focused on and treated as such,” says Eric Kronberg, a principal at Reynoldstown architecture firm Kronberg Wall. Parking revenues could be directed back to business districts or neighborhoods to do cleanups, streetscape repairs, or even security patrols. What Kronberg calls “parking-benefit districts” could “make hated paid parking meters an appreciated funding stream for neighborhood infrastructure repair. We can’t keep borrowing money to patch some things here and there through bonds.”

Parking is more than just a place to stash cars — it’s a complicated part of urban life that sometimes determines who gets access to public space. When parking is too restrictive, for instance, a business may seem less desirable to those who rely on cars. When it’s free or too cheap, it could mean the business sees less customer turnover.

Free parking is never really free, either. A space in a parking deck can cost a developer $20,000, which is then folded into the price of housing. In the long run, plentiful parking can prevent people from using transit, bicycling, and walking, exacerbating the city’s car culture.

But parking can also bring in millions of dollars. The decision to outsource on-street parking enforcement came during a time of desperation. In 2008, the cash-strapped city laid off most of its parking enforcement officers to balance its books during the Great Recession. For about a year, parking without paying was a game of chance with the odds in the driver’s favor. City officials realized they were missing out on hundreds of thousands of dollars in monthly revenue.

The city inked a deal with Duncan Solutions, a Milwaukee company that had managed parking enforcement in Las Vegas, Pittsburgh, and other cities. Under the seven-year agreement, Duncan, doing business as PARKatlanta, would pay Atlanta $5.5 million each year for the job of enforcing parking laws, writing tickets, and collecting revenue and fines.

For a city looking at deep budget cuts, the money made sense. But it was also a brilliant political move, says Matt Garbett, an Adair Park resident and rabble-rouser who’s made a cause of shaking Atlanta out of its parking addiction.

“The city realized they weren’t collecting on this revenue,” he says. “If they collected on the revenue they would be bad guys. By contracting out to a third party, PARKatlanta became bad guys. For a little bit, it was, ‘Why did you sign this contract?’ But the anger was at the enforcers. They were able to shift the anger. Now the city is the good guy for exploring new options.”

The backlash was fierce. In areas where PARKatlanta had authority, shoppers, diners, and residents claimed they’d been wrongly cited and had to endure the headache of contesting a ticket in traffic court. Store and restaurant owners said PARKatlanta was scaring away business. Poor signage confused motorists. Bumper stickers started appearing on cars urging people to “Fire PARKatlanta.” Lawsuits have been filed. Whispers about quotas and PARKatlanta PEOs — industry parlance for parking enforcement officers — getting notified when a meter expired and prompted to write a citation were rampant. A 2013 Central Atlanta Progress survey cited by the Urban Land Institute in a review of Atlanta’s on-street parking program found people “very familiar with the company” scored it 3.74 out of 10.

Part of the pushback could be attributed to the theory that motorists in Atlanta, an urban city that suffers from some suburban habits, hate paying for parking. Just look at the backlash Atlantic Station and Ponce City Market faced when they announced shoppers and diners at the mixed-use developments had to pay to park.

“From all the people I’ve talked to over the years I’ve been talking about parking, it’s something that people in this city view as a fundamental right,” Garbett says. “People have two immutable opinions about parking: it should be free and no stranger should park in front of your house.”

The company’s tactics also left a sour taste. Residents over the years have complained about getting citations during the grace period before a meter expires as well as PARKatlanta vehicles pouncing when enforcement times begin in certain areas. Meters have accepted payment on free days, such as Sunday, and allowed drivers to buy parking past the enforcement time.

“Nobody wants to get parking tickets,” says Atlanta City Councilwoman Felicia Moore. “Typically before PARKatlanta it was a hit-or-miss situation whether you would get a ticket. People weren’t used to enforcement. And they weren’t used to aggressive enforcement on top of that.”

In some neighborhoods that are often overtaken on weekends by people parking on residential streets (some of which have resident-only on-street parking), the company has its admirers. Dana Persons, a Midtown resident who’s seen Piedmont Park revelers crowd side streets and block driveways during festivals, says she thinks the PEOs have made life more bearable, though they’ve been overzealous at times.

The city also shares blame. Garbett and PARKatlanta Manager Anderson Moore like to point out that elected officials set the parking offenses and fines that have irked thousands. In 2012, the city responded to the public outcry and amended the PARKatlanta contract, accepting $200,000 less in return for an online complaint form, response to complaints within two days, and improved employee training.

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