When the City of Gainesville tested a paid parking framework in 2022, Hear Again Records saw a sharp decrease in revenue. As much as it hurt, Andrew Schaer, the store owner, hoped the lack of foot traffic would send a message to the city that people didn’t want the new parking arrangement.
Similar concerns were echoed last week at Bo Diddley Plaza during a community forum to discuss the lack of parking in downtown Gainesville. Around 40 people showed up on Wednesday at 5:30 p.m. to complete a survey gathering their feedback on the topic. To the disappointment of many, only one city commissioner attended the community forum.
“Ted Book was the only one present for it, and nobody else showed up,” Schaer said. “To me, that’s a slap in the face.”
The forum was hosted by SP+, a parking management corporation hired by the city six months ago to help the city improve the downtown parking experience, said Alexis Grainger, director of consulting services.
At least 260 people filled out the SP+ survey before the meeting, Grainger said. Schaer submitted his own 39-page petition to the city Wednesday morning with over 1,000 signatures from his clients.
“We, the citizens of Gainesville, stand with Downtown businesses and are hereby opposed to all future City plans to move to a paid parking structure. Thank you, commissioners, for your consideration,” the petition read.
Matthew Dibble, who works at the Hippodrome, was one of the hundreds of signees present at the evening forum. One of the bigger challenges for the historic theater is getting people downtown, and that can’t happen if people can’t park, he said.
“They’re not scared of putting up seven-story buildings now,” he said referring to the increase in the development of luxury student housing. “So just make a big parking garage and have it be free.”
Another solution he proposed was closing down the Streatery on Northwest Second Avenue and other pedestrian-only streets in the area which would allow cars to access around 60 parking spaces.
These parking spots would service establishments such as Surterra, a medical cannabis dispensary, said employee Jersa Jadotte. They’ve received several complaints from patients who’ve been unable to park.
On their way to the forum, Jadotte and a coworker, Jianna D’Addario, said they saw a patient’s car get towed. The patient, they said, couldn’t afford to purchase their medicine because they had to pay for their car to get released.
They also raised accessibility concerns. A lot of the patients that frequent Sureterra are sick, elderly or have low mobility problems, D’Addario said. But to reach the dispensary, they may have to walk three blocks, they added.
“We have to sit there and hear about these people’s experiences just getting in, which is compounding the reason why they’re there in the first place,” D’Addario said.
Lot 10, an unused parking lot located at 100 SW 1st Ave., is another location that attendees deemed as misused. The lot has remained empty for over 20 years.
During the pandemic, the lot was used for outdoor dining. Today, it lacks signage informing drivers that it’s a tow-away zone and is used as a valet for the new Hyatt Place hotel next to the Hippodrome, said Schaer.
“So, the hotel moves in downtown and their needs are basically compensated for by the city,” he added.
Before the hotel was built, the site was a dirt lot with 150 parking spaces.
Last year, the city commission moved forward with a proposal from the AMJ Group, a local development firm, to build a seven-to-10-story building where Lot 10 is currently located, allocating space for affordable housing, office spaces, and a grocery store on the bottom floor.
“Where are those people going to park?” asked Jadotte.
As a solution, Jadotte proposed signage guiding people toward a distinctive area for free parking, similar to the idea Dibble presented. They disagreed with some of the other ideas suggested at the forum, specifically, the idea of increasing police presence around parking lots to make nighttime walking safe from people without homes and crime.
”If the houseless population was the issue, then it would be a housing population issue, which is they need housing,” Jadotte said.
For disenfranchised communities like the Black community, heavy police presence could decrease their feeling of safety, deterring them from coming Downtown especially if they’re purchasing medical cannabis, which is still federally recognized as a Schedule 1 drug, Jadotte said.
Thomas Idoyaga, the transit community service specialist for the city, said the forum was organized to get the community’s feedback on exactly these issues. He urges community members to fill out the survey.
“Everybody wants free parking, but then the spaces are taken,” Idogoya said. “It’s a hard balancing act, to get all these folks to enjoy downtown with easy parking.”
For now, downtown employees and visitors will have to wait until the survey is reviewed and decisions are made on how to go forward.