Pull in for a conversation about parking in Sandusky with the city’s chief planner

Ask Sandusky Chief Planner Arin Blair about parking in the city and her thoughts first turn to modes of transportation not of the four-wheeled variety. 

“As a planner, I am very interested in walkability, and I have always chosen where I live based on being able to walk to places – and I am a bicycle rider, so I’m a fan of active transportation,” says Blair, whose position exists within the city’s Community Development Department, during a recent phone interview. “I’m definitely coming from the perspective of being an advocate for pedestrians and bicyclists.” 

And while she talks of a new generation that “really wants to live in walkable places,” she allows that since about the middle of the 20th century in this country, development has been done with cars in mind. People drive places, and then they park.

“Every project I’ve worked on – in every city, at every scale – people were concerned about parking,” says Blair, who’s been in Sandusky for more than a year. “It’s just one of those topics that’s (always) hot, and people like to talk about it.”

Does Sandusky have a parking problem? 

The short answer, she says, is no.

Still, there is a discussion to be had.

“I think there’s a perception of a parking problem in Sandusky,” Blair says. “I’ve heard this from residents and when I have conversations with people.”

When you visit the Sandusky Mall or the Wal-Mart Supercenter in Perkins Township, the available parking is very apparent, she says – it’s right there in front of you. And even if the spot you find is a bit of a hike to the door, you think little about it. 

“But when people come to a downtown kind of location, if they have to park on a different street and walk and turn a corner, they have the perception they have parked far away – even when the amount of steps they take might be the same or often (fewer) than the amount of steps they took from a parking spot into Wal-Mart.” 

Parking in the city is free, with about a thousand spaces to be found on streets and in lots and garages. 

“On a daily basis, we have a huge surplus of parking,” Blair says. 

For example, she says, the Erie County Parking Garage, at Columbus Avenue and West Market Street, is underutilized. Whenever its use is counted, it’s never more than 50 percent full. 

“People don’t even realize it’s there,” she says. “Sometimes, the perception of a parking constraint is the lack of intuition – when you don’t know it’s there because there isn’t good signage and you don’t know how to find spaces. That can lead to the perception that we don’t have enough parking spaces.”

While that garage offers 48-hour parking and some city options are good for 24 hours, much of the on-street parking near businesses comes with a two-hour limit.

“It’s not (enforced) very strongly to ensure we have turnover, but one of the best practices that I’ve heard is that you want to make sure you have 10 to 15 percent of your on-street parking spaces available at any given time,” she says. “That helps with the perception that people can find a space because there are always a few spaces available.”

She notes it’s not good for businesses if someone, say, takes a street spot and then hops on the Jet Express, leading to hours far from his or her car.

Asked if meters could become an option to counter that, Blair says that while that is a way to build in more space turnover, it isn’t an action being considered for the near future. 

“If we continue to see demand grow in the city and (more residential construction) and bigger events and new development downtown, we will look at parking strategies to make sure that the on-street spaces are turning over so that our retailers and our restaurateurs are getting the customers’ needs met.”

She adds, “I live downtown, and so I walk downtown a ton, and on Saturday nights, on weekends in the summer when it’s beautiful outside, tons of people around, I still see lots of available parking spaces,” she says. “I think that for a long time, people were used to parking just on Columbus Avenue and now they have to park, maybe, on Market Street or on Washington Row. Or maybe they’re even on Jackson Street.”

Speaking of Jackson Street, some parking spots were lost with the redevelopment of the Jackson Street Pier. 

Worth it, she says. 

“By reducing the amount of spaces (there) and creating the public space, we’ve actually induced demand for people. We can hold less cars there, but we’re holding events that (bring in) thousands of people.

“There’s a balance when you’re talking about downtown parking,” Blair continues. “We can’t (sacrifice) having fantastic, just awe-inspiring, memorable public spaces for parking spaces because if we don’t have the public spaces, people won't spend time downtown. We won’t even have a need for parking because people won’t go there, which is basically what happened for the last 30 years.”

Similarly, she acknowledges that it can be difficult to park when the area plays host to large-scale events such as the Ironman 70.3 Ohio race or Ohio Bike Week.

“People will (say), ‘Well, I couldn’t find a parking spot during Bike Week.’” she says. “If we plan all the parking needs for Sandusky based on Bike Week, we might as well just demolish the entire downtown and make it a parking lot.”

Again, though, if the city and, especially, downtown continue to grow and “we continue to produce these amazing events that thousands of people want to attend,” a parking study could be in order.

“And I don’t think it will tell us we need a whole bunch more spaces. I think it will help us fine-tune (parking-time) requirements.”

Many folks could help lessen whatever parking strain may exist by eliminating the need to park by walking the 10 or 15 minutes from their homes to downtown or making use of the Sandusky Transit System, which, she said, is in the midst of some strategic planning for how it may better serve riders in the future.

“When people make that choice to walk or to take a bus or to ride a bike, that also balances the amount of cars that we need to make room for here downtown.”

Blair says a school of thought exists that a parking problem is a sign of a happening city.

“I don’t know if that is something that resonates with people that have that perception that there is a parking problem … but I think it’s worth stating people want to be here for the first time in a long time and are excited to be here in Sandusky.

“We’re doing our best to make sure everybody can drive here and park and enjoy events.”