Panel eyes Oxford parking solution

By Errol Castens | NEMS Daily Journal Oxford Bureau

OXFORD – After operating for more than a year as an ad hoc study committee, a group studying how to manage Oxford’s downtown parking resources has been embodied as a permanent commission to study and advise the mayor and aldermen regarding the issue.
The commission’s first order of business when it meets at 9 a.m. on Nov. 18 will be to review the report from Tim Haahs, a national parking consulting firm with offices in Philadelphia, New Jersey, Atlanta and Miami. The firm’s researchers visited Oxford in May, when the town was at its quietest, and on a football weekend in October, when the town’s population typically triples, as background for its study.
Three principles will guide the commission’s work:
• Prioritizing the customer/client/visitor as the desired on-street parker. This will hit head-on with the practice of some downtown workers of parking in front of where they work and then moving their car every couple of hours to avoid a ticket.
• Ensuring a 15 percent vacancy of on-street parking spaces. Such a ratio assures frequent turnover of premium spaces and makes residents and visitors feel they’re likely to find a space within a reasonable time and within a reasonable distance of their destination.
• Creating a parking system that is easy to understand for visitors and others new to the system. One of the first needs in that regard is likely to be signage directing newcomers toward off-Square but nearby parking lots.
“Our goal is to get moving quickly on implementing some of the suggestions from our consultants,” said commission member Ron Hipp, who chaired the study committee. “I suspect this will include going forward with plans for paid parking.”
Parking fees also will provide a revenue stream for near-term improvements such as repaving existing lots and adding signage.
Jeff Busby, as the incoming District 2 supervisor, will represent Lafayette County on the commission.
“A lot of people are going to be upset because we’re going to have to charge for premium parking, but it’s probably a necessary step,” he said. “We’re not going to have the ugly meters up in the middle of each parking space. You’re not even going to notice the little box that you pay in.”
The elephant in the room regarding downtown Oxford is whether, when and where a parking garage will be built.
“A parking garage is one of the things our consultant is going to address,” City Planner Tim Akers said. “We’ve always believed we wanted to manage our existing parking first.”
Many members, however, believe the construction of a parking garage may be put off but will prove inevitable in the long term. While the consultants may have other suggestions, most of the conversations about such a structure have centered on property behind City Hall.
“I think we’re in agreement that that’s probably what we’re going to need, especially with the way the university and the town are growing,” Busby said.
While some of Oxford’s downtown crunch boils down to the convenience of storefront parking versus off-Square parking, it’s more than a problem of convenience and perception.
“At different times of the day and in different seasons, it isn’t a perception at all – we just don’t have enough parking for everyone who wants to come downtown,” Akers said.
Commission members will include two representatives of downtown merchants, five at-large representatives from the city, one Lafayette County resident who may live inside or outside Oxford city limits and one representative from one of the downtown churches with significant parking. The commission’s work will be supported by the Downtown Parking Special Revenue Fund, which will comprise direct parking fees, parking permit fees and parking fines.
Hipp said the ultimate goal of managing the city’s resource of parking is not to generate funds for city coffers but “to give everyone a decent chance of finding a parking space on or close to the Square.”
errol.castens@journalinc.com