Wynwood entrepreneurs at odds with Miami Parking Authority over district’s future

These days, it seems that just about everyone is looking to make a buck in Miami’s Wynwood as South Florida’s hottest up-and-coming neighborhood continues its transformation from sketchy warehouse district to edgy, vibrant hipster art haven.

Condo developers. Major retailers. And now — to the extreme dismay of business owners — the meter maid.

Allowed for years to blossom largely as a Wild West of parking, Wynwood is starting to feel pressure from the Miami Parking Authority. The agency is ramping up a plan to charge for street parking as part of an overhaul of parking regulations and patterns that officials say must change to spur long-term growth in a neighborhood that now stands on its own.

But gallery owners, tech start-ups and other business owners say the parking authority is just the latest to try to profit from Wynwood’s vibe, and it’s threatening to undercut the redeveloping district while it’s still in its infancy.

“You’re just trying to kill a baby that is just starting to walk,” said Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado, who opposes the changes.

In most South Florida neighborhoods, charging for street parking, as the Miami Parking Authority now plans to do around Wynwood’s graffiti-covered warehouses, is common practice. But in Wynwood, tucked mostly between Interstate 95 and the FEC railroad tracks north of downtown, many entrepreneurs say free parking has allowed the community to flourish.

Day-trippers and tourists can come easily into the neighborhood to snap selfies in front of dazzling murals. Office workers from around the area pop in for lunch breaks without an extra parking tax. And art enthusiasts can spend long hours visiting galleries, or taking in the scene during Second Saturdays, Wynwood’s monthly art walk.

“One of the great parts of Wynwood was there was always free parking in the area. Stopping that early on might slow down the momentum of the neighborhood,” said Kareem Tabsch, owner of O Cinema, an indie theater that opened more than three years ago on Northwest 29th Street. “It’s wonderful to see how the community has embraced Wynwood and the vibe and ethos in the area we’ve created here. But it’d be great to see more support from the city in promoting the neighborhood, and not something that would stifle it.”

Miami Parking Authority officials say they are promoting Wynwood. After tech entrepreneur Mario Cruz criticized the parking plans in the Miami Herald’s The Starting Gate blog, exposing frustrations from the district’s burgeoning tech community, parking authority executives tried to explain that the flow of customers into Wynwood had increased to the point that parking fees were needed to open up more spaces for in-and-out traffic.

In a community meeting held Tuesday in the back of Gramps, a popular bar born from the shell of an old warehouse, Alex Argudin, the MPA’s chief operating officer, said the agency has left Wynwood mostly unregulated for years at the behest of business owners. Now, she said some of the same entrepreneurs want to increase turnover of cars so new customers can park and spend their money.

Without regulation, agency representatives say, parking during big events like Art Basel sometimes becomes “chaotic.”

“It’s growing pains. We get that and we hear it,” Argudin said. “The regulation of parking just causes turnover.”

Starting Sept. 1, drivers parking on the street in Wynwood will be required to pay $1.50 an hour and be limited to three hours in designated zones, according to the parking authority. Most payments will have to be made through a smartphone app, or by phone — a high-tech system the parking authority thinks will be embraced in tech-savvy Wynwood, even though using it comes with an extra fee.

Motorists can purchase decals to park on the western edge of the neighborhood, by I-95, in some cases blocks away from the places where they work and shop. The decals cost $55 monthly. Cheaper $40 employee parking zones are planned along the northern edge of Wynwood and the southeast corner, although parking authority officials have said the plan isn’t yet final.

Parking Authority CEO Art Noriega said the changes are part of a plan that has been in the works for more than a year and was delayed to accommodate local businesses. He said it’s part of a larger “mobility” scheme that includes trying to bring in the city’s trolley service and creating parking lots and garages.

“We’re not working in a silo where it’s just about parking,” he said. “This isn’t stuff where we just woke up one morning and said two weeks from now let’s just roll out this parking plan.”

But Wynwood businesses already dealing with the parking authority say the situation is a disaster. Tamara Wendt, managing director of The Lab, a hub where start-ups go to collaborate, said she feels like a part-time parking consultant because customers and members are ticketed and towed so frequently. It’s an issue that comes up during board meetings.

“Instead of spending time talking about how do we grow entrepreneurial ecosystems, we’re talking about parking,” she said.

Next door, employees of Cruz’s Choose Digital, which builds custom e-commerce apps for large companies, previously kept parking cheap with the $55 decals, which anyone can purchase. But now, cars with decals must park blocks away in an area employees say is poorly lit and unsafe.

Jorge Piñon, an app developer, carries his laptop to and from his car and says he worries about being mugged.

“I’m pretty much a target,” he said.

For now, Piñon said, Choose Digital employees are staying safe by parking nearby on the street, meaning either they may have to pay more than $100 extra out of pocket, or the 10-employee company may reimburse them and be out close to $2,000 each month. Cruz, the owner of the company, is meeting with the parking authority Monday to propose an alternative plan that would put Northwest Second Avenue on a per-hour fee but create more convenient employee parking.

Some gallery owners, meanwhile, say the employee parking zones planned would force them to walk blocks in the heat or rain to get to their businesses. At O Cinema, Tabsch worries that his customers will be inconvenienced during long movies if they have to feed the meter and move their car to a different zone.

Noriega said the plan is still up for discussion. He said the parking authority, a quasi-independent arm of the city, is the most “engaged and responsive” agency in Miami.

On Second Avenue, where much of Wynwood’s shops are collected, Leticia Pollock, co-founder of Panther Coffee, says she doesn’t think paying for parking will affect her trendy coffee shop. But she said Wynwood has known for a long time that this was coming.

“It’s something we knew would come as the area becomes more popular,” Pollock said. “It’s just the natural progression of things.”

Miami Herald staff writer Nancy Dahlberg contributed to this report.