Downtown Anniston has its problems, but a lack of parking is apparently not one of them.
Even though peak lunchtime hours can find motorists vying for spots in front of Noble Street shops, acres of vacant asphalt lie just a short walk away, generally shunned by shoppers.
Yet parking has driven complaints for years among some residents who say downtown lacks sufficient space for idle cars. The city's recent proposal to move City Hall to Watermark Tower at 10th and Noble streets has again raised the issue — that such a shift would make downtown's supposed parking problem worse.
But then, those complaints are based on the assumption that downtown has a parking problem at all.
City officials and some transportation experts say if there is a parking problem, it's only in residents' minds, an issue of perception that many other downtowns face. They say Anniston has a wealth of parking spaces throughout and around downtown that are available, and that residents need only walk a block or two to use them. Instead of adding more parking, changing residents' perceptions along with better management and advertising of available spaces is needed, they say.
A matter of perception
"It's just a subconscious bias to accommodate cars," Jack Plunk, principal planner for Anniston-based East Alabama Regional Planning and Development Commission said about downtown parking complaints. "It's perception, and it's an absolutely incorrect perception."
Plunk said there is ample parking throughout downtown, from empty lots around vacant buildings to a little-used, city-owned parking deck beside Commerce Towers on Wilmer Avenue.
"There's a bunch of empty blocks everywhere," Plunk said. "What we need are more buildings, not parking."
Ann Welch, chairwoman of the parking committee for Main Street Anniston, formerly known as Spirit of Anniston, said that there appears to be more of a perceived problem of parking downtown than an actual one. Welch, who owns Nunnally's Custom Framing on Noble Street, said parking shortages on Noble are only an issue during peak hours between 11:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. each day.
Welch said people seem to believe walking a block or two from a parking lot to Noble Street businesses is too far and too much of a hassle. However, such distances are about the same or even less than those people walk in large mall parking lots and in malls themselves, she said.
"When people shop in a mall, they're usually walking farther than if they were shopping and walking downtown," Welch said. "It's all perception ... we just think it's farther."
Mickey Hall, transportation planner for Skipper Consulting Inc., a Birmingham-based engineering firm, said Anniston is not alone with its perception of a parking problem.
"Most all downtowns struggle with parking because people do want to park in front of stores," Hall said.
Hall said he did not know why people want to park only in front of downtown stores, but are willing to walk long distances in large parking lots and inside big-box stores like Walmart.
"But that's something you see everywhere," Hall said.
A report compiled in 2008 by the city, the Metropolitan Planning Organization and Main Street Anniston, shows just how much parking is available in the city, the daily demand for it and how to manage it and prepare for possible future growth. The report inventoried parking conditions in an area bounded generally by Eighth Street in the south, Moore Avenue in the west, 15th Street in the north and Wilmer Avenue in the east. The study found a total of 14 parking lots and 38 segments of on-street parking in that area, totaling 1,425 spaces.
The report states current parking supply was adequate to meet overall demand, but that residents would need to walk a block or more to access available parking in some cases. It also states that if a large development ever occurs or if vacant property downtown is filled, a significant deficiency will exist and additional off-street parking will be needed.
So far, such development downtown has not happened. However, even if Anniston's proposed move to Watermark Tower comes to fruition, it appears there would still be plenty of parking to accommodate the increase in people downtown. City officials this week expressed interest in buying the 11-story Noble Street building to use as a City Hall. The overall goal is to save a historic building in danger of becoming another derelict structure and using it to stimulate business growth downtown.
A count of parking spaces on satellite images on a county website and Google Maps by The Star shows about 480 total available parking spaces in a one-block radius around City Hall on Gurnee Avenue. Meanwhile, the one-block radius around Watermark, including the nearby city-owned parking deck, has about 514 parking spaces.
City officials have said they are also considering buying at least one vacant building across Noble Street from Watermark to turn into more parking if needed. Also, the demolition of the Wells Fargo bank building nearby on Quintard has also opened more potential parking for Watermark. Wells Fargo is constructing a new bank at the site, but it’s far smaller than the original building.
"Wells Fargo wants to talk to the city about us possibly acquiring that extra property for parking," said Toby Bennington, city planner.
Bennington said the city will look at Anniston's parking issues again in the near future as part of greater plans to redevelop downtown. Bennington said downtown's main parking problem is that many spaces are going unused, perhaps from the perception that walking a block from a parking spot to a store is too far. However, it also appears that several parking lots and the parking deck are not being properly advertised to motorists.
"We'll look at more promoting where other parking lots and parking spaces are located, such as signs to specific lots," Bennington said. "There is no signage for the parking deck, but that's something that certainly could be considered."
Hall, the consultant, said better identification of available parking definitely helps downtowns.
"Marking your lots and advertising where they are and managing your on-street parking helps," Hall said. "And a lot of times employees want to park in front of stores — that seems to be a problem as well."
Hall also said many downtowns also free up more prime parking spots in front of stores by enforcing time limits on them. The 2008 report also stated enforcement of storefront parking time limits would help free up spaces more quickly.
Police Chief Shane Denham, however, said that though there are such parking time limits for certain areas in the city code, his officers do not regularly enforce them.
"I don't have the personnel to do it right," Denham said. "It's about resource allocation and parking is not a high priority."
Still, Denham said, his department has received several complaints over the years that people were abusing parking on Noble and that parking there was scarce. What he and his officers have found, however, has not backed up those complaints.
"There weren't many times where we'd ride down Noble Street and not count 15 or 20 available spots," Denham said. "I understand people want to park right in front of where they're going, but if people have to walk a block to get where they're going, I don't see that as much of a problem."