Aspen’s parking problems persist as director plays whack-a-mole
Mitch Osur could be considered an expert player in the futile game known as “Whack-a-mole.”
Used colloquially, the arcade game is often referenced to a situation that attempts to solve a problem piecemeal, resulting in a temporary solution.
Welcome to the Osur’s world as Aspen’s parking director — managing the 3,882 parking spaces in the city and balancing that against the 10,000 cars that come into town each day.
Osur frequently references the game when he’s before the City Council asking for policy changes to address the next problem that’s been created from previous enacted rules.
“Every action has a reaction,” he said last week.
The latest issue council has been grappling with is whether to regulate unattached trailers and oversized vehicles, which are taking up parking spaces in residential zones.
As a result of paid parking increasing to $6 an hour during peak times this summer to free up spaces for tourists and those coming to town to shop and eat, commuters and employees of downtown businesses started parking in surrounding neighborhoods.
Osur has estimated in the past that there are 30 to 40 spaces being used in those residential zones by trailers and campers.
He proposed to council earlier this fall that it limit unattached trailers on neighborhood streets to only individuals who are eligible for a residential permit. They would have been allowed three three-day permits a year.
Council last week put the kibosh on that, as well as the proposal to regulate oversized vehicles.
West End resident Diane Platek implored council last week, when it was considering a new parking ordinance, to not penalize her for wanting to park her camper in front of her house.
She told council she uses it frequently in the spring, summer and fall to go camping with her children. Platek said council should be concerned with protecting quality of life for the people who live in Aspen.
“My life is compromised because of tourists and commuters,” she said.
Mayor Steve Skadron said at council’s Oct. 9 meeting that it is not council’s intention to make it a burden to live here.
Late last week, he offered a follow-up thought via email about why he didn’t support limiting trailers and campers.
“I wanted to consider two things: if a residential space is filled, should type of vehicle filling it matter; and, the impact our changing rules are having on the residential parking sector and the locals living there,” Skadron wrote.
Councilman Ward Hauenstein concurred, while acknowledging that the city’s policy of making spaces available in the commercial core puts more pressure on neighborhoods.
Nevertheless, he supports letting unattached trailers qualify for a residential parking permit, with the caveat that they have to follow city rules of moving every 72 hours.
“I think we should prioritize locals over commuters,” he said via email. “Quality of life and family time are valuable. Having a camping trailer or travel trailer for family trips should be encouraged, not the source of a penalty.”
Changes coming to the ‘hood
Council did agree that residents will get four residential parking passes, with one guest pass starting Nov. 15. Right now, it’s five plus one guest pass. In 2019 and beyond, it will be reduced to three, plus one guest permit.
Another rule change that goes into effect Nov. 15 is that a vehicle can only park in one of the four residential zones once a day.
The change eliminates the ability for people to move their cars every two hours, which is the limit to park for free in neighborhoods surrounding the core.
People, including those with campers and oversized vehicles, can still park in residential zones all day for $8. Osur said that fee has not changed in a decade.
But who wants to pay that if they can find a place to park for free?
“People in Aspen are super smart,” Osur said, adding that commuters are determined to find pockets where free parking is still available.
The Hunter Creek area, specifically Lone Pine Road, was one of those spots — until recently. It used to be that vehicles were allowed to park for as long as 24 hours on the street.
Commuters and skiers realized that and started using it for day parking, and either hopped on the bus, walked or took a WE-Cycle into town.
“There was nowhere for residents to park,” he said.
On Oct. 1, the city changed the time zone to four hours as part of a 90-day test. Osur said council wants him to come back in February with an enforcement plan for that area.
And on Jan. 1, the fine for altering a parking pass or other types of fraud will go from $100 to $250.
There’s been a proliferation of people altering passes, Osur said, declining to say how they are doing it to avoid more of it from happening.
“It’s getting worse and we are catching more people,” he said, adding he doesn’t understand why people think it is fine to game the system. “Why it is any different than shoplifting?”
The secret’s out
For years, crafty Aspenites have known about the secret parking spots behind City Hall. But like any good secret, it spread and now those spots are being enforced, with parking officers chalking tires so no one can park there for more than two hours.
And recent parking policies have pushed more commuters to the Rio Grande parking garage, which used to be empty more often than not.
“It’s fuller than it’s ever been,” said Osur, adding that there’s been some debate about who should be using it — tourists or commuters.
“(The chamber of commerce) wants tourists to be able to park there,” Osur said.
He noted that the city has been pushing employees to park there, including allowing free parking after 3 p.m. to accommodate restaurant workers.
Osur also said the garage is the most inexpensive place to park in town; if an individual buys a monthly pass, it’s $5 a day.
Protecting the commodity
Osur said that in his pursuit to keep the commercial core open for paying customers, he looks to the neighborhoods for overflow.
He estimated that about 200 cars have been pushed into nearby neighborhoods from recent policy changes. And the pressure begins to build on the 3,200 spaces available, particularly because there are 1,800 residential permits and 400 carpool permits that allow people to park for free in those areas.
“What happens is commuters park as close to town as possible,” Osur said. “I’ll admit we have too many cars and not enough spaces.”
And his priority is to protect the 682 spaces available in the downtown core.
“Let’s face it: We are a tourist town, so when in doubt, I go to residential and they hate me for it,” he said of the people who live in those neighborhoods.
That sentiment is felt by some business owners and their employees, who are now priced out of parking downtown.
“When I got here, 60 percent of employees parked in the core, now it’s 30 percent,” he said.
Since Osur took over the Parking Department three-and-a-half years ago, the city has deployed “dynamic” pricing. Parking downtown now costs a premium.
When council agreed to increase the rates in June during peak times between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m., the goal was to have a 85 percent vacancy rate with the idea that there would be at least one open spot on each block.
That goal was exceeded and sales tax activity actually increased in July and August, Osur reported with confidence and a sigh of relief.
“I gave them a spot near where they shopped,” he said. “We can sit here and say it worked … you can imagine how much (grief) I’ve taken, which is fine because I’m a big boy and can take it.”
Osur said he has never has been told to make parking policies in order to make money for the city; most of the revenue generated go to funding free bus routes in town and other alternative transit measures.
“I’m just controlling the commodity,” he said.
Osur noted that it is more inexpensive than it used to be to park between 3 and 6 p.m. in the core.
He said he tries to maintain a balance for everyone’s quality of life but he admits it is tough.
“Whack-a-mole is a very difficult conversation,” he said. “I don’t have all of the answers, and I’m willing to listen if you have an idea.”