Ponce City Market trashes Atlantans' God-given right to free parking

In America, we have an inalienable right to free parking when shopping. I think it’s in the Constitution.

So, when anyone messes with our freedoms, we Americans, especially we Atlanta-Americans, get fighting mad.

And now, I report to you from the latest front in the War on Parking — Ponce City Market, Atlanta’s newest star attraction.

The massive renovation at the old Sears building on Ponce de Leon Avenue, next to the Beltline, has been universally hailed as a game-changer for Urban Atlanta. Or, at the very least, it’s pretty darned cool.

But as people drove to the new market the past month, many were surprised to discover that parking wasn’t free, as God intended. Worse, you had to remember your license plate number and punch it into the parking meter and guesstimate how long you figured to stay because it’s a pay-first system. This causes people to overpay in advance to avoid worrying about time on the meter running out. Or they have to keep a nervous eye on the clock as they choke down their oysters, Indian street food or locally sourced raw vegetables.

Red signs affixed throughout the underground parking garage warn that towing is enforced.

I had heard grumblings about the parking at Ponce City Market mixed in with the effervescent praise. Reviews on Yelp, which are largely positive, had an undercurrent of confusion and under-stated anger at the parking.

“5 Stars for amazing reuse of space. 1 star for parking,” wrote Stephie Z from Atlanta.

Joseph G from Atlanta complained about the “tragic comedy that is parking here,” with it taking 10 minutes for four people to figure out the machine, even with the help of an attendant.

Not everybody hates the set-up.

John D from Atlanta, noted this is not “hipster central, though I have a beard and did wear plaid and boots the last time I was there.”

Ponce City Market is a “fantastic space,” he wrote. “Easily accessible from the Beltline on foot or on bike. Parking is paid, but not stupid expensive, so my dopey car friends usually have room, and aren’t whining about having to pay. Bicycle space is plentiful as well.

“We just need to restore street car service to the area. Maybe the space wasted on parking could be used for something productive.”

John “I’m Not Necessarily a Hipster” D, is onto something here. The parking scheme is part of the urban social engineering that the city of Atlanta is all about. In fact, the Beltline is all about getting people to drive down to the path so they will get out of their cars and walk before they get back to their cars and drive home.

Mayor Kasim Reed doesn’t want to pry your cold, dead fingers from your steering wheels, but he and other city officials would prefer you not drive so much.

The city has undertaken a campaign of “traffic calming” streets (doing away with traffic lanes) and building a disjointed network of bike paths as a way to get the less-than-1 percent of the public who commutes by bike up to perhaps 2 percent one day.

The Ponce Market has a bike valet and 500 bike parking spaces. The market’s website notes that North Avenue MARTA Station is a mile and a half away and transit-oriented people can then catch a bus. Or walk.

The market’s PR firm said in an email, “In order to reserve parking for its guests as well as regulate spaces for office, resident and retail tenants, Ponce City Market implemented a paid parking program in October 2015. Ponce City Market and developer Jamestown are deep-rooted in commitment to sustainability and community engagement and chose to activate a partnership with the Atlanta BeltLine, donating a portion of each parking session back to the organization and investing in alternative transportation.”

(It’s $1 per 30 minutes, $10 for 4-8 hours and $8 for a valet up to four hours.) A few years ago, Atlantic Station tried to expand its paid parking but angry freedom fighters made the development keep the first two hours free.)

I drove to Ponce City Market this week and talked to about 20 others who drove. Most complained about the parking when asked.

Megan Bain, who was heading to dinner, said she was reading a discussion about the market on the Web “and this guy was saying ‘Why don’t you just ride a bike?’ Yeah, like I’m going to ride my bike to get pillows at West Elm.”

Russell Carter, who manages musicians for a living and lives near the market, struggled with the parking machine, wondering whether he should pump in $10. A friend advised he go with $5.

Carter says he loves the market, although “it never occurred to me you had to pay. At Lenox Mall or Phipps Plaza you don’t have to pay. There’s a mentality that if you go to a mall or restaurant and buy things (you don’t have to pay.) It just seems like they’re nickel and diming you.”

A growing body of study among urban planners suggests that “free parking” is really subsidized parking, that its cost is built into the price of your burger. Most local zoning ordinances mandate a minimum number of off-street parking spots for new commercial entities. Businesses often don’t charge for these spots because that’s what their customers expect. If CVS charges to park, there’s always Walgreens.

Donald Shoup, a UCLA professor of public policy, wrote, “Minimum parking requirements act like a fertility drug for cars. Why do urban planners prescribe this drug? One explanation is that planners are not exercising professional judgment. They are simply responding to political pressure. People want cars, and they need to park them somewhere.”

He says land devoted to parking spreads out development and creates a less-than-optimum use of space.

A study by Nelson\Nygaard Consulting Associates looked at parking at 27 mixed-use districts and determined that “parking was universally oversupplied, in many cases quite significantly.” On average, they say, parking supply exceeded demand by 65 percent.

Just think of that when your cruising around looking for a parking space — there are two of them out there somewhere waiting for you. And, if you’re really lucky, you won’t have to pay.