Fighting traffic woes at Winter Park Trader Joe's

Drivers are growing frustrated with playing musical chairs in a shopping plaza some call poorly planned.

Drivers are growing frustrated with playing musical chairs in a shopping plaza some call poorly planned.

Tim Freed

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Heavy traffic and parking problems plaguing the Winter Park shopping plaza containing Trader Joe’s may be there to stay unless the developer takes action. And the plaza doesn’t look to be alone, joining nationwide questions about parking issues with the grocery chain.

The popular retailer opened at Unicorp National Developments’ Lakeside Winter Park development in June, attracting hundreds of Central Florida shoppers.

But with the cult following of Trader Joe’s came an overflow of customers, with traffic backing up along U.S. Highway 17-92 at the lights turning into the plaza.

Residents making their way into the shopping area then engage in a cutthroat battle for parking spots. Monday afternoon, before rush hour, saw the parking completely filled up with at least 10 cars circling the lot.

The parking woes prompted Mayor Ken Bradley in the final minutes of Monday’s meeting to request the city reevaluate its parking codes in comparison to other cities.

“Ultimately what we have to do is look at shared parking solutions for this city,” Bradley said. “What is the solution for Trader Joe’s? Well, they built that according to our codes.”

But the traffic and parking problems at Lakeside Winter Park are up to the developer to solve, said Public Works Director Troy Attaway.

The city plans to speak with the Unicorp National Developments about placing a left turn arrow for northbound drivers on 17-92 to help them get across the oncoming traffic and into the plaza.

“[The developer] hasn’t brought any of these ideas up with us,” Attaway said. “Early on in the development phase there was talk of reworking that traffic signal, but nothing ever came back from that.”

“I’ve heard reports of taking several cycles to get through … It would make life easier.”

Unicorp National Developments President Chuck Whittall said during the July 28 City Commission meeting that the traffic should dwindle over time as the craze over the new shopping location dies down.

“We expected when we opened the center that it would be very, very busy,” Whittall said. “Trader Joe’s has been drawing from all over the place.”

“They told us that this honeymoon craziness usually takes a month to a month and a half … That will normalize.”

But at shopping plazas nationwide, Trader Joe’s has gained notoriety for parking problems. At a Trader Joe’s in Miami, 55 cars were towed from nearby lots on opening weekend after parking overflowed into adjacent businesses.

The problem isn’t just confined to opening weekend: Continued parking problems weeks after a store opening in Denver caused residents to overrun a city hall meeting, calling out for traffic fixes because of the store.

Residents in that instance pointed to poor city codes that allowed too little parking for the Denver store, but that problem appears widespread at Trader Joe’s. A quick search of Internet customer rating site shows page after page of complaints of undersized parking, with lots generally ranging from 50-85 spaces set aside for the store. In Berkeley, Calif., customers resorted to “vigilantism” after the city began fining them for parking on streets nearby.

Currently there are about 140 spaces available in the Lakeside Winter Park development, which hasn’t leased out all of its 12 units. Other parking spaces are blocked off for construction. The tight parking forced one Florida Blue medical office to shelf plans to open in the plaza because it couldn’t secure off-site parking for employees.

Whittall told the City Commission that he plans to introduce more parking once construction starts on a new development at the current site of the Mt. Vernon Inn across the street – though the deal has yet to close. That parking could allow the Florida Blue office to open as well.

But the traffic concerns may continue as more retailers and restaurants lease at the plaza, Attaway said.

“You could have more traffic, but does it mesh up with the Trader Joe’s peak times?” he said. “It’s kind of hard to say whether it’s going to be worse.”

The overflow of customers coming to the Lakeside Winter Park development could be seen as a plus, Bradley said.

“It’s a good problem to have,” Bradley said. “I’m glad we have the types of establishments in our city that people want to come to.”

“I don’t know if we suddenly add parking because of that. Maybe we have to.”