Tuesday, January 31, 2006

To Drive...Perchance To Park

I witnessed Celebration's "parking challenges" firsthand this afternoon. For those who don't live here, a bit of background: the lack of parking in the business district has been an ongoing issue. It escalated in 2005, as the main downtown parking lots were shut down to become new condo developments.

Normally, I only notice it during special events like the Fourth of July fireworks. Even then, it doesn't bother me much because I prefer to walk downtown. I've heard complaints of day to day issues, but so far they haven't affected me. When I need to run to the bank or Town Hall, I either hike over via the boardwalk or drive late in the afternoon, after school has let out. I'm not the sort of person who needs a parking spot right in front of my destination, so I've always been able to find a spot somewhere in the general downtown area.

Today, I headed out earlier than usual. I drove down Celebration Avenue, hoping to find a spot somewhere between Stetson and the church, a span of several blocks. But alas, there was not a parking spot to be had! I circled twice, and I couldn't even find a spot on the side streets. On my third circle, I gave up and headed to Front Street, which runs along the lake. I haunted Front and Market Streets, but both of them were solidly lined with cars. The parking lots were full, too, and fellow hopefuls were circling like predatory lions staking out a herd of wildebeests.

Granted, I could have found a spot fairly easily if I had parked illegally. I lost count of the vehicles left in no-parking-zones with impunity. In Celebration, parking tickets are as rare as Disney stockholders who miss Michael Eisner. But I just couldn't bring myself to do it; call me old-fashioned, but I just don't cotton to the idea of only obeying rules that don't inconvenience you (unless said rules involve the correct direction of travel in my alley, of course). Selectively obeying the law is a slippery slope that society is rapidly plummeting down. Don't believe me? Go for a drive in town and count the number of people who actually fully stop at the stop signs.

Soon I was beginning to think that I'd run out of gas before I located a parking spot closer than 192. As I mentioned before, I don't mind walking several blocks, especially on such a beautiful day. The sun was shining, and the air was that rare, perfect mix of not-too-hot/not-too-cold. But I do require my parking spot to at least be somewhere within Celebration. I was getting so discouraged that I actually considered driving home and returning downtown on foot, but I hadn't walked in the first place because I was under a time constraint.

Then, just when I thought all was lost, I heard the Herald Angels singing...there, right ahead of me, a car was backing out of a spot! I positioned Canyonero to snatch it the moment it was vacated. Amazingly, there were no other vehicles around to challenge me, but I was prepared to defend my territory with all the vigor of a mountain ram.

The spot was all the way down by Lakeside, but I didn't mind the exercise. The downtown lakefront and quaint shopping district is one of the things that I love about our town. I soaked up the sunshine as I strolled along, watching the kids play in the fountain and little knots of people swaying in the rocking chairs. I peered in the shop windows on Market Street along with the tourists and waved at the locals. It was a pleasant little walk, but it saddened me to realize that I'd spent more time searching for a parking spot than my stroll and my stops at Town Hall and the bank combined. If this becomes a regular event for visitors to our fair town, it doesn't bode well for the business district.

On a more positive note, there were no parking challenges when I drove to Water Tower Place, the shopping area on 192, for some refreshments at P.J.'s. They're a new coffee shop/wine bar, and they had tempted me in with a coupon for a free pastry. I selected an ooey, gooey cinnamon bun and purchased flavored iced tea to accompany it. I am an iced tea gourmand, although I'll never be a true Southerner because I can't stomach any sweetener in it.

The flavor of the day was strawberry kiwi, and it was delicious. The flavored teas are not sweetened; you can add sugar if you like, but for me straight up is the only way to drink them. The roll was yummy, too, although sugary enough to make my teeth jangle. It definitely gave me my sugar buzz for the day.

When I first heard that P.J.'s was opening, I wondered how they would compete with Barnie's. After all, Barnie's is located right downtown and has been around for years. Would people really be willing to make the drive to Water Tower Place? Now that I know they have flavored teas, I for one will make the extra effort to go there. I've also had their cold chai, and it was quite tasty, if a bit on the sweet side. I won't totally give up Barnie's, as my husband and I are addicted to their flavored coffees. But Barnie's is discontinuing my favorite drink (the Coolers), so if my husband can find something he likes at P.J.'s, that may become our new pre-church stop.

The wireless internet access seems to be attracted a lot of people to P.J.'s. Both times I've been in there, there have been multiple people using their laptops at the tables. There are always people inside clustered around in little groups, too, relaxing and chatting. The larger, more comfortable indoor seating area is a big advantage over Barnie's, which has very few tables inside. Their outdoor patio is nice, but a bit too smoky for people like me who go into sneezing fits when exposed to too much tobacco smoke. P.J.'s offers an alternative, as the inside is smoke free and large enough to accommodate many more people than Barnie's.

Inside seats are also not dependent on the weather; in a state known for its afternoon rainstorms and blistering summer heat, an outdoor patio isn't always the most desirable place to be. People on the town intranet are already forming a book club that will meet at P.J.'s, and I suspect that it will become a popular hangout for similar groups.

Hopefully there is a place in Celebration for both Barnie's and P.J.'s. I will probably split my business about 50/50 between them. Barnie's will remain my place for flavored coffee, but P.J.'s will win out for cold drinks and, possibly, specialty drinks.

It's nice to see new businesses coming to town. Now, if we could just get some "new" parking spots, life would be perfect once again.

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