Column: Where, oh where, has the parking gone?

Over the past few months, we have been waiting to see the final proposal for The Shoppes of Wilton Manors property that anchors our Arts & Entertainment District on Wilton Drive.

The prospective buyers have unveiled their plans for the property; and let me just say, there is a lot to be desired. The project architect described the plan as, “Architectural redesign through a new paint palette.”

In my opinion, the appropriate response would be, “Well, you can put lipstick on a pig, but it’s still a pig.” This rhetorical expression is far more appropriate since the oversized impractical building space, sitting almost vacant for years, used to be a Piggly Wiggly Supermarket.

Many residents were looking forward to a new and exciting replacement of the outdated building that takes up much of the north end of the Shoppes plaza. Some were hoping for a much-needed parking structure, along with plans for a boutique hotel along the frontage of Wilton Drive. Unfortunately, this new proposal is another attempt to make the outdated building more appealing to retail businesses by doing some cosmetic improvements, while being told to wait another five or so years to see any further improvements to this vital piece of property in the heart of our city. There is one item that created a bit of excitement, and that is the proposed pedestrian entrance coming in off of Wilton Drive, where now you must walk in traffic lanes.

Part of the plan includes a new structure on the corner of Wilton Drive and NE 7th Avenue for a restaurant or additional retail space. The big negative here is that a good number of parking spaces would have to disappear to build the new structure. Why would we want less parking in a city crying out for more? Not only do we allow businesses to expand without adding additional parking, we allow them to expand while decreasing current parking. Rumors Bar & Grill expanded by decreasing parking spaces out front. This developer wants to expand while decreasing parking. The narrowing of Wilton Drive will not increase parking as once thought. The city changed regulations to allow retail businesses to open with decreased parking requirements. All this, while resident taxpayers have paid handsomely for the two new small parking lots around the north end of Wilton Drive.

City officials believe that Uber, along with the future of self-driving cars, will solve our parking dilemma. Just ask residents living in larger cities witnessing the increased gridlock on city roadways due to thousands of rideshare vehicles, while mass transit is left to deteriorate and go unfunded by local governments, to realize that the future is not looking so rosy.

Just drive around on a weekend night, when our business community depends on strong customer engagement, and you will see full parking lots at Hagen and throughout our city. How many customers and revenue are lost because people are unable to find parking, are unsure where to park on city streets, and who have circled around numerous times only to go elsewhere, somewhere they can park to enjoy dinner and a drink without all the hassle.

Yes, Uber and other companies have made amazing changes in how we decide to travel locally and how to view parking needs. Unfortunately, Wilton Manors still has a major parking problem, even with Uber, ridesharing, and other choices.

Luckily, the city is also sitting on the solution. The large vacant drainage ditch on the corner of Wilton Drive and NE 21st Court is the perfect location for a municipal parking structure. The design could include ground floor space for restaurants and other businesses with affordable rents set by the city. Introducing affordable commercial rents along the Drive would put positive pressure on current property owners who drive their tenants out of business with ever increasing rents. This structure could also include a covered open space for special functions, such as the monthly City Yard Sales or catered events, producing even more revenue for our Leisure Services Department.

Many will question the cost. However, without a proactive plan to offer the growing business community in and around the Arts & Entertainment District much-needed parking, we will see more and more businesses heading to our neighboring cities that provide such infrastructure. In another year, city finances will benefit from having paid off a Parks Bond. It’s time we seriously look at seizing this opportunity and develop the city-owned property right on the Drive into a wonderful addition to our central business district, providing needed affordable rental space and much-needed parking.

Waiting around for the future to happen usually means being left behind. Dealing in the present, we must make decisions that offer solutions to current and future problems, needs, and infrastructure if we want to keep our city a vibrant destination for residents, visitors and businesses. Parking and affordable commercial space on Wilton Drive will make life just better here.

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