Parking situation – the unpretty lineman of downtown success

The city of Youngstown is finishing a brand-spanking new parking lot on West Federal Street in the heart of its downtown dining/retail district.

An artsy brick wall is going in now. In a few weeks, asphalt will be laid. The $750,000-plus investment could be open by mid-July.

It will include a nice stairway up to the West Federal Street businesses and residences that neighbor the lot and are core to downtown’s five-year resurgence.

And if city leadership has its way, the 9-to-5 patrons of those places will never, ever touch those steps.

Why? Till 5 p.m. or so each day, the $750,000 parking will be limited to the city’s water customers.

Ironically, right about when this lot opens, a business will be leaving downtown for Boardman

Pinnacle Health – happily at home inside the downtown YMCA for 13 years – said parking is its problem and it’s moving to Boardman.

That’s the second known business to make a parking-related reduction. In May, Roberto’s said it can’t make lunches work due in part to the hassle of parking.

Truth be told, more businesses downtown stress and complain about parking. But they express it in mostly hushed tones because when you complain about it, you are complaining about either the city or the Youngstown/Warren Chamber of Commerce’s Community Improvement Corp. operations.

Those two groups affect a lot of the other factors that lead to a successful business. So Rule No. 1 for businesses: “Don’t be a #$%*+# complainer.”

But here’s their reality:

More than $1 million in new parking will have opened directly on prime West Federal Street in the last 12 months using government funds. And none of it will be available from 9-5 for the small businesses, general public and new residents who have fueled the last five years of downtown surge.

Understandingly, this is not the city’s biggest downtown issue, because there is a surplus of cool ideas going on now. A riverfront destination on either side of the Market Street Bridge will happen within two years.

The city, Youngstown State University and Youngstown CityScape are giving Wick Avenue a great facelift appropriate for a main university corridor. A hotel is planned for 2017. New housing is set to come on later this year. Closing Phelps Street for a retail plaza is in the works. All are great, sexy projects.

Since we all seem to understand football, the above projects are like securing Drew Brees, Marshawn Lynch and Antonio Brown for your offense.

Parking is just the bearded, burly, unknown and unpretty offensive lineman.

And just as those dream players fail without an offensive line, all the great projects fail without a better infrastructure in parking.

What’s befuddling is the misunderstanding and dysfunction that exists now. It fuels reason that parking will only further struggle.

Ask downtown merchants how parking is policed, and you get this hazy explanation of what they think are the rules and what they have gotten away with. Much of how downtown parking is policed depends on what ticket-writer or police officer is working.

Within that foggy window, businesses try to guide their clients. Two months back, I watched a police officer ticket a car on Phelps for being about 5 feet out of place. To me, it was akin to writing a speeding ticket for being 2 mph over the limit.

City bosses will say that there is ample parking a block away from the Phelps Street downtown core. One is the Commerce Street lot, and it has two signs at the entrance saying “permit only.” The other is the small lot across from City Hall that charges $2 for every 20 minutes. More oddly, its signage tells you there is no cap to what you will pay. So a two-hour lunch meeting will, in theory, cost you $12 to park – about what you’d pay to be a block away from the Cleveland Cavs for a three-hour LeBron fest.

What concerns most of the merchants is the problems now will only get worse if and when other projects come on line.

We are a car society.

The Valley’s employment lifeblood is a car facility.

We will never become the bus and train culture we were 50 years ago.

The downtown daytime population is not all walking from nearby offices. When new retail operations come online, even more suburban folks will be desired.

When they visit downtown, I would argue that a fear of being towed surpasses a fear of being mugged – especially given the reduced violent-crime era we are now enjoying.

And when guests park downtown, especially baby boomers, they really hope they can see their car from their destination. But they at least expect the opposite – that from their parking spot, they can see their destination.

Two businesses have officially called it quits on 9-5 business due to parking. Current businesses whisper about their parking challenges.

In the last few years, a handful of other businesses have moved out to Boardman for other reasons.

And amid this climate, the only new parking to be added to downtown is not for use by the whole, but only for CIC and a city service that has had no effect on downtown’s five-year surge.

It all reads like a good book: “The Emperor’s New Parking.”

Todd Franko is editor of The Vindicator. He likes emails about stories and our newspaper. Email him at He blogs, too, on Tweet him, too, at @tfranko.

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