The St. Augustine Amphitheatre is trying to strike a balance when it comes to parking for major events. With a main lot capacity of just 200 cars for an increasingly popular venue with more than 4,000 seats, well, you do the math.
For years, members of the surrounding neighborhoods have helped make up the difference by opening their driveways, front lawns or empty lots, often for a fee, to concert-goers. While some have made a handsome profit, beer money or at least a little pocket change, others are sick of all the bells and whistles accompanying this side enterprise.
Ryan Murphy, general manager for the amphitheatre, told The Record on Thursday although the venue has secured arrangements to make use of nearby lots and shuttle people in free of charge, you can’t underestimate the appeal of a short walk for a few dollars more.
He said the additional lots at the R.B. Hunt Elementary School soccer field, Anastasia State Park and St. Augustine Elks Lodge No. 829 have brought the number of available (and “official”) parking spaces to 1,200, which he said should cover the bases for what the Amphitheatre typically needs. The trick, however, is getting people to take the extra steps.
Originally from Gainesville, Murphy said he’s seen enough game days in Gator Nation to appreciate people trying to make a little profit on their proximity to a major venue. Still, he said watching people crossing State Road A1A, regardless of their excitement level or any questions about their sobriety, can be “nerve-racking” and that the Amphitheatre has the additional challenge of trying to be a good neighbor to everyone.
Meanwhile, officials at the St. Johns County Commission meeting on Tuesday said they’ve received a number of complaints and concerns (mostly having to do with public safety, noise and other nuisances) from area residents. Commissioner Jeb Smith requested an update on the parking situation at the county-owned venue.
“We’re not real pleased,” County Administrator Michael Wanchick said. “It’s a safety hazard both to and from the amphitheatre.”
He said the county and other stakeholders have tried to avoid taking a forceful stance to effect change, preferring an educational approach. To this end, the St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office has been posting signs and handing out fliers discouraging attendees from parking in neighborhoods and making them aware of other options.
One such “courtesy warning notice” reads: “Out of respect to the residents who call this neighborhood home (and in order to avoid a parking ticket in the future), please plan on parking at one of the St. Augustine Amphitheatre’s FREE satellite lots for your next visit.” The notice includes a map of the immediate area with the lots and associated services highlighted.
Wanchick said changing consumer behavior is a time-consuming task but he was confident it could be achieved.
“We don’t have 100 percent compliance, obviously, and it may be necessary within our limits to turn it to a more regulatory approach here in the near future,” he told commissioners. “We know we’ve got a few hot spots out there, but I want to be sure everybody understands we don’t need those parking spaces anymore. We have more than enough now.”
Murphy acknowledged changing behavior isn’t the easiest thing to do but said he believes education is the right path toward alleviating the concerns related to parking.
At the main lot, limited paid parking is available with the advance purchase of a premium parking ticket at the box office or through ticketmaster.com. Free shuttle service (beginning 45 minutes before gates open and running until 45 minutes after the end of the event) is available for ticket holders parking at R.B. Hunt and the state park. The Elks Lodge is a relatively short walk away and has the added bonus of being on the same side of A1A. The amphitheatre still urges patrons who are able to walk or ride their bicycles to do so.
Murphy said they’re making the best case they can for using the satellite parking and taking the shuttle.
Take, for instance, the description on the amphitheatre’s website’s of the ride over from the state park: “After departing the ocean-side parking area, the short six-minute journey will take you past estuarine tidal marshes and through the scenic maritime hammock before dropping you off at the ticketing entrance of the Amphitheatre. Keep an eye out for the numerous gopher tortoises whose burrows line the route!”
There’s even a YouTube video at https://youtu.be/y0Oq-QwEXGw.
Murphy said the amphitheatre is not only paying rent (through a couple of dollars tacked onto ticket prices), it’s paying it forward. The amphitheatre, in renting the spaces from the state park and R.B. Hunt, is also helping them with “greening initiatives” such as bringing a refill water station to the park or gardens to the school. Other projects are in the works or underway.
“It’s not only the parking thing, we’re trying to be good neighbors to these people and trying to invest back in,” Murphy said. “I’m not trying to sound warm and fuzzy about it, but that’s the intent.”
If the attempts at a soft-sell are ineffective, the amphitheatre’s website also includes the following warning: “Under no circumstances is parking permitted in the residential neighborhoods surrounding the St. Augustine Amphitheatre. These neighborhoods are routinely patrolled by the St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office. Any vehicle not belonging to neighborhood residents may be TICKETED and TOWED at the owner’s expense. PLEASE RESPECT OUR NEIGHBORS AND DO NOT PARK YOUR VEHICLE IN ANY RESIDENTIAL AREAS!”
Murphy said it isn’t lost on him that people hurrying to concerts are naturally going to be more inclined to park in one of the lawns across the street and run over rather than park down the road and wait for the shuttle.
“Training humans is hard,” he said. “You’ve got people coming here maybe six or seven years, and they have their favorite guy who parks them across the street. I don’t know how you break that.”
The amphitheatre was originally built in 1965 to commemorate St. Augustine’s 400th anniversary. In 2002, St. Johns County made the decision to invest in refurbishing it — a process that took nearly five years.
Murphy said he hasn’t really investigated how the parking shortage even came about in the first place. He said there were at least 2,000 seats in the original venue but perhaps the surrounding lands weren’t as developed and traffic along that stretch of A1A wasn’t as busy. He said while everything may seem to be escalating, the amphitheatre has only scheduled four more shows than it did last year.
Mark Jones, a long-time resident on Crassoldi Street, across A1A from the Elks Lodge, said he’s a big fan of the amphitheatre but the parking problem — and the mini economy that has sprung from it — has gotten out of hand.
“Nobody likes it but the people who are doing it,” he said. “It’s far from a garage sale. I’ve had enough of it.”
He said the house next to him was bought on foreclosure last year and leveled to make room for up to 100 cars on nights where the Amphitheatre experiences overflow. Another property nearby, consisting of a house on one lot and, basically, an unimproved parking lot on the other, has also been packing them in.
“There’s nothing out there, just parking lot,” he said. “I know that ain’t right. Anyone with any judgment looking at it would think the same thing.”
He said the area is zoned residential and should be treated as such. To the contrary, he said lot operators are charging up to $20 a spot. Some even wear reflective vests and wave lighted directional sticks or flashlights.
“They wear this stuff like they’re working at the Jacksonville Coliseum,” Jones said. “There’s a 30-foot flag that says ‘parking.’ There’s trash here and there. It’s like a luau every night.”
He said he’s seen law enforcement give tickets to cars parked on the rights of way, but not on property.
In terms of either enforcing or toughening ordinances on paid parking in residential neighborhoods, Murphy said the amphitheatre has mostly stayed out of that discussion.
“We’re doing everything we can to contain,” he said.
County spokesman Michael Ryan said the amphitheatre, county code enforcement and the sheriff’s office have all looked at the laws and ordinances on the books and found the lots are legal.
“The bottom line is they don’t meet the definition of a business as St. Johns County defines it,” Ryan said. “They’re not governed by our business ordinances.”
He said it’s legal to park cars in your front yard as long as there’s access and cars are parked in the correct direction and not impeding traffic.
While appreciative of the amphitheatre’s efforts to curb the problems, Jones said he suspects no one who’s in the market for a quick, easy spot is paying any attention to the signs.
“They’ve been trying that and it hasn’t worked,” he said. “I can be patient and I can be patient, but that’s just absurd.”