Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Park the Car

The Parking Study has come to an end. It makes me sort of misty-eyed, after 17 months of meeting with my fellow downtown and transit geeks. And it's a bit of a challenge to my usual cynicism about political progress, but I really like the recommendations that we finally adopted. I hope they happen!

So why did Middletown have to do a Parking Study? Because we received Federal earmarks for $21.1 Million in parking and transit improvements to downtown (though Middletown has to come up with 20% of that from other sources, such as a referendum or state grants.) Also, the Study was an opportunity to look at how downtown fits into a wider transit network, and how to support the growing number of bicycle commuters and enthusiasts. I sat on the committee as a representative of the downtown merchant community.

At the Monday night council meeting, the committee members gave the report, including short, mid and long-range recommendations. (Vinnie Amato is pictured here giving us all a history lesson on parking management.)

As I can't resist some commentary, I'll post my opinions in Italics so that you can skip those parts if you prefer!

Short-range Recommendations: Work to improve the way we manage the parking spaces that we already have, and add to the supply of parking spaces in the coming year.

1. Form a new city department on Parking, with a professional manager and a citizen advisory board. Create a special revenue account so that parking fees, fines and income would only be used for parking needs.

Why do we need professional parking management? Broken meters, old technology, unclear signage, parking rates that aren't always linked to the demand for those spaces, choosing where to put long-term/employee parking, customer service....lots of reasons. Parking is currently run by the Police Department (which has better things to do with its time.)

2. Expand the Melilli Plaza lot (behind Main Street Market) by connecting to the "employee only" lot of 87 spaces next to City Hall, so that all of these spaces could be used on evenings and weekends.

One interesting statistic is that Melilli is the most heavily used lot in town, and is at 97% occupancy on weekend evenings, when the city hall employee lot,just a few feet away, is at 1%. Linking these lots (using remaining road bond funds from 2003) would immediately add supply where it is wanted most.

Mid-range Recommendation: Replace the Riverview Arcade parking deck and cover part of the police department parking with a deck. This project would take 3 to 5 years, and would replace the 350-space in the current Arcade with up to 560 spaces. Funding would come from $9 million of the Federal funds, and the remaining $4 million from local and state sources.

This is probably the most contentious piece of the study. Everyone knows that no one wants to park in parking garages. But it is the best way to create a walkable downtown -- otherwise we will be covered in asphalt. So the goal is to get all the long-term parkers with monthly permits into a garage, leaving more of the surface lots and metered spaces free for visitors. Some people prefered building a garage on the Melilli lot, some closer to the hospital and hotel in the South End. Ultimately, this plan won approval because otherwise the city would be spending money to repair and replace the arcade at some point in the coming years. The next step in building this garage is a design phase that would tell us exactly what it would look like. My personal hope is that the future design gives more attention to the pedestrian experience walking down Dingwall Drive/College Street -- right now it's a concrete and dumpster canyon. I'd rather lose some parking spaces if we could have businesses along the sidewalk. Catherine Johnson, our favorite New Urbanist, has long been a champion of putting "liner buildings" along the street, and burying parking in the interior of the block.

Long-range Recommendations: Support other methods of transportation within the downtown, such as bicycles and better public transit.

1. Study the possibility of a Streetcar on Main Street. The 3/4 mile length of Main Street once had a trolley that ran on tracks. The proposal is to study whether a new track system could be laid, running either with overhead electrical power, or running on an alternative fuel. A first glance estimates that this system would cost between $7 and $10 Million, which could be paid for with the Federal earmark funds (again, with a 20% match of local funds). The operations could be paid with a combination of state reimbursement, parking income, and fares.

I'm just OVER THE MOON about this idea. If you've travelled to other cities recently, you probably encountered a streetcar or tram system. The data shows that streetcars bring development, because of the permanence of the tracks vs. a bus system, and the fact that it attracts a higher demographic in ridership. I think it would help draw new investment to the North End, and would encourage visitors to shop at more than one Main Street business (if they didn't feel they had to move their car.) It would help downtown employees patronize Main Street -- currently there are 450 monthly parkers scattered around downtown who could park centrally in the new garage and take the streetcar to work, and that doesn't even count the 100+ employees that are being shuttled from the Court Street garage to the Hospital by private bus. It would be a tourism draw -- streetcars are fun. And if we ever develop the riverfront properly, it's a first step in linking Main Street with the new development. I think it's a great way to use the Federal funds to really boost the Middletown economy -- the first step is a feasibility study to see if it can be done. The downside is the timeline -- which is projected at 5 to 10 years.

2. Make downtown more bike-friendly. There are two parts to this plan - first, to connect five different regions of Middletown to downtown with either dedicated, off-road bike paths, or with bike lanes on the sides of roads. Next, within the downtown, improve bike amenities such as bike signage and lanes, and bike racks.

The city has already prepared maps of possible bike paths to the downtown. I think the most important of these is to create a bike path linking the new High School to downtown, and to extend the Westfield Bike Path which has already been constructed --- the question is funding, since using the Federal funds for these projects would take forever. The Planning Department was successful in getting grants for the Westfield path, and hopefully will try to find more. The second proposal, of improving downtown conditions for cyclists, is also important but not eligible for the Federal Funds. Really these items shouldn't be long-range goals -- we should ask city hall to form a task force to find funding to put these plans in effect soon.

And that's it for the Parking Study. I'll let everyone know when it comes back to the Council (via Economic Development) for a vote.


Anonymous said...

dear mother
nice punctuation!

Jen Alexander said...

Dear Anonymous...er...Tenzin,

Get off the computer and do your chores.

your mother

Anonymous said...

I just don't get the streetcar idea. If I understand correctly, this would run the length of main street. That's about 6/10 mile - from the Inn to O'Rourkes. I don't think this will make a whit of difference in how people use main street, where they park, where they shop. It certainly won't draw people to town, just to take a several block ride on a street car.

You can't equate a four block trolley car, with the DC metro.

I've never heard anyone say "oh, I won't go to Main Street because it's too hard to park." For special occasions, yes, but not on a regular basis. I'd support a trackless, electric street car that we bring out for special occassions, but there are much more effective ways to revitalize down town.

I urge you to please check out the Detroit "people mover" and see how that changed downtown.

Anonymous said...

I do not mean to belittle Middletown but rather would point to the fabulous success that these various suggestions have produced in other, not-too-distant places. Take a trip to Burlington, VT or NYC for great farmers markets. The same for bike/pedestrian friendly paths as in Lexington, MA or Manchester, CT. As for modernizing parking and parking meters, let's get on with it! The plan is the difficult part because many of these improvements are not very costly to implement or maintain.

Jen Alexander said...

Dear Anonymous 1 & 2,

Thanks for reading and commenting (I was afraid my teenage son was the only one reading my posts...)

About the streetcar --Anonymous#1-- sad as it is, most people in CT won't park and then walk to a store if they can't see it from their parking space -- we've been well trained by the malls, where we will walk the equivalent of a few city blocks as long as we can see the door while we walk. It may not be true of me or you (ok, it's true for me) but it is definitely the habit of most of my downtown customers. The parking study consultant told us that some of our traffic congestion is people circling the block trying to find a metered space in front of their store! So the streetcar would encourage people to think it was easy to move up and down Main Street, without moving their car. At least I hope so. The other issue is that the federal funding is limited in how it can be used -- streetcar would be fine, but buying $10 million worth of electric trackless buses wouldn't, and building a new parking lot on every block wouldn't be eligible either.

To Anonymous #2 -- it is astounding how long it takes to get simple improvements like signage and working parking meters. I've heard it come up in downtown meetings for at least the last 8 years. Along the way I learned that the City uses a system where any kind of infrastructure improvement goes on a list (CNR), where the department (in this case, Police) has to ask the Council years in advance, then they get a lump sum of less than they need, and they have to decide which things on their list they want to do first (together with all the other police department needs), and they only get part of the money each year of the cycle.....That's why we need a new parking department which will have a dedicated fund, which uses parking income to solve parking problems and stops mixing it up with the general fund. During the past two years, parking actually generated a surplus, which could be used for those improvements that we need!

Thanks for reading the Eye and writing back!

-Jen Alexander