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Who is filling Austin parks' parking lots before sunrise?

Parking lots at some of Austin’s popular downtown parks are filling up with people who aren’t always using the parks.

AUSTIN, Texas — Frustration is growing at some Austin parks as parking spots increasingly get taken by people who aren’t visiting the parks – making it more difficult for you to enjoy some of the community’s most picturesque spots. 

To add to the frustration, the City of Austin’s attempts to stop the problem could end up costing you more.

The parking problem

Before sunrise, the KVUE Defenders watched as the parking lot at Vic Mathias Shores filled up with cars and trucks, before the occupants got out, put on their construction vests, gathered their tools and walked or scootered off to their jobs at construction sites.

It’s frustrating for people like Jon Kregel, who takes his dog to the park several times a week. Half of the time, he finds himself circling the lot, hunting for a spot.

“I've gotten a sense that, yes, that people may be parking here that are not using the trail or anything around here,” Kregel said. “I'll circle once and then I go searching other places.”

A lot of the cars that end up in the lots belong to people who are building Austin’s skyline.

RELATED: Austin's population growth poses challenge to the future of the City's parks and trails

“There's hundreds of us that do it,” said Tyler Graham, a construction ironworker.

In four years, he said he’s racked up 37 parking tickets. But that doesn’t stop him from regularly using a park parking lot for free.

“Always cheaper to take a ticket than pay for parking,” Graham said.

If he parks on the street instead, Graham said it’d cost about $50 a day. But a ticket is only $25 if paid on time.

“It wouldn't shock me, and it would really kind of piss me off, if that's what's really going on,” Kregel said.

The parking problem is one the City knows about and has known about for years, according to a council resolution passed in 2018.

“By people parking at our parks and our facilities for a long term to store their vehicle, they are preventing people from accessing those facilities. So, we can see that that would be frustrating,” said Jason Redfern, parking enterprise manager for the City’s transportation department.

In an effort to stop the parking abuse, City workers installed pay stations at two lots on West Cesar Chavez, across from Austin Central Library and at 1636 Toomey Road.

Credit: KVUE
The City added parking pay stations to these two lots in an effort to increase parking turnover near parks.

Pay parking may also be coming to the Dougherty Arts Center next to the Alliance Children’s Garden, Butler Metro Park, the City’s parks and recreation office at 200 S. Lamar Blvd. and at Vic Mathias Shores, all in an effort to discourage parking by construction workers and increase parking turnover. That's according to a joint statement from the transportation and parks departments.

Only one of those sites – the Alliance Children’s Garden – has an active parking pay station proposal at this time.

Credit: KVUE
The City of Austin is considering adding parking pay stations to these four lots as parking spots get clogged with people who are not always using the parks.

The KVUE Defenders asked Redfern if the increased parking pay meters would make a difference, considering that some construction workers would rather take the parking ticket.

“The installation of a space station helps fund enforcement activities,” Redfern said. “So, it will help for more consistent enforcement.”

Park rangers increased patrols at Vic Mathias Shores in the spring to ramp up parking enforcement, a spokesperson for the parks and recreation department said. They are tasked with enforcing park rules and parking violations at nearly 300 parks in the city. 

But even with enforcement, it may still be a cheaper option than parking downtown for construction workers like Graham.

“That's almost my whole paycheck going just to parking, just to go to work. I still got – I got little ones to feed, I got a wife to feed, I got rent to pay,” he said.

But park-goers like Kregel say filling the parking lots at Austin's parks is not the solution.

“Part of any building plan ought to be what you're going to do with your workers, and it shouldn't be taking up parking spots that belong to the residents here,” Kregel said.

According to a spokesperson for the City’s Development Services Department, the City does not have any requirements for developers to have parking for construction workers.

Council asked for action 3 years ago

But the City Council took action in 2018, passing a resolution that directed the city manager “to propose ordinance changes or recommendations that would establish off-street parking requirements for workers at a construction site during the construction phase of development, as well as provide incentives to workers to reduce their parking impact through provision of shuttle services, carpool and vanpool coordination, daily parking cash-out, etc.”

One reason for the resolution was “to make Downtown Austin an attractive destination by ensuring a certain supply of available parking.”

In response to the resolution, the Austin Transportation Department (ATD) put together a pilot program in early 2020 with a developer that would gather more information and come up with best practices and lessons learned.

But then the pandemic hit, causing the City to hit the brakes on the pilot program. Now it’s unclear if or when another pilot could start, based on the need for a voluntary developer to work with the City early in the planning process to come up with strategies, transportation department spokesperson Jack Flagler said.

The City does offer an affordable parking program in partnership with some of the downtown garage operators, through which employees of the “service and entertainment industry” can park for more affordable monthly rates.

There is no eligibility requirement and the City would be open to allowing construction workers to participate as well, Flagler said. The City has avoided raising fine amounts but is now reviewing the City Code to determine the best tools to encourage vehicle turnover and compliance. 

WATCH: Austin's population growth poses challenge to the future of the City's parks and trails

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