2016-05-26 / News

Officials talk downtown parking without outlining next step

By Ben Meiklejohn
Staff Writer

BIDDEFORD – City staff presented information to the council and planning board about the impact of the downtown’s parking policies at a joint workshop held Monday, May 22. City Manager James Bennett said the purpose of the workshop was “to connect downtown revitalization with parking policy to understand the true costs of free street parking.”

“We’re not trying to convince you to do anything,” Bennett added.

The workshop was largely a recap and overview of two previous studies the city paid for in 2006 and 2012 to study downtown parking.

According to the most recent study, downtown has a parking inventory surplus – or parking spots beyond the city’s needs – of 200 spaces, but that surplus would decrease to 141 spaces in 2017 and 81 spaces in 2022.

The mill district, however, with a need of 1,203 spaces, has a shortfall of 753 spaces, and at total build-out, it would require 2,300 spaces.

City Planner Greg Tansley told the Courier that the needed spaces identified for the mill district in the survey are less than the number of spaces that would be required under the city ordinances if parking waivers were not granted.

“Those numbers reported identified and factored in what would be the demand, and are not reflective of the city’s ordinances,” Tansley said.

The Lincoln Lofts project at 17 Lincoln St. received a waiver for a total of 263 spaces by the planning board earlier this year. Tansley said North Dam Mill and Pepperell Mill Campus have also received parking waivers, but could not produce the exact numbers by the Courier’s deadline.

Bennett said an important quality that defines a successful downtown is “the experience.” He said people go to national store chains simply “to get what they need” and aren’t looking for an experience. However, when people frequent a downtown shopping area, they are generally looking to have a variety of experiences, including shopping, eating and arts.

“There’s an importance of two shifts,” Bennett said. “Downtowns are most viable when they have daytime economic activity and nighttime economic activity.”

Bennett said downtown has significant daytime activity but not so much at night.

The parking policy history in Biddeford, Bennett said, is that city government has had no direct involvement.

“It’s been traditional mill housing, with limited or no land for parking because people walked to work,” Bennett said. “Some surface lots were created but that was driven primarily to remove blight.”

Bennett said parking downtown is free with some limited zones and enforcement done by ticketing and towing, primarily the former.

“If I’m a business and I have to provide X number of parking spaces and there isn’t a lot of space, I’m going to buy property and tear it town,” Bennett said. “As you have more parking blocks, you have less energy and less viability downtown.”

Chief Operating Officer Brian Phinney, the city’s former environmental control officer, guided the council and planning board through a chart of what costs would be to construct and maintain certain numbers of surface parking spaces.

The cost of maintaining the city’s current public surface lots is an average of $32,125 annually, or 21 cents per square foot, Phinney said.

“We tried to get a realistic understanding for the cost of parking for surface parking lots,” Phinney said. “Maintenance is pretty hard and fast. It does include all parking lots downtown and maintenance costs for downtown.”

Mayor Alan Casavant said in the past five years, whenever he has talked to developers, “Parking has always been a big issue, a barrier.”

Bennett said parking that is funded by users instead of by taxpayers could help keep taxes down. Bennett was city administrator in Lewiston from 2002 to 2009 and helped facilitate the construction of five parking garages funded both publicly and privately.

“Over that eight- or nine-year period, the tax rate went down,” Bennett said. “If you think about it, the free parking right now is being paid for 100 percent by property taxes and not by people using the spaces. Every cent that goes into parking right now is being paid for by property taxes.”

Bennett said when a building on Pepperell Mill Campus was torn down last year to make room for parking, $100,000 in annual taxes was lost from city’s property tax revenue.

“I’m suggesting that whatever you do, whatever the community decides in the next 12 to 24 months, and that includes doing nothing because doing nothing is policy, will significantly determine what downtown will look like 20 years from now,” Bennett said.

Ward 6 City Councilor Rick Laverriere said people feel as if they already pay for parking through their taxes and don’t want to pay more.

“The biggest thing is to convince the people out there (that paying to park would benefit them),” Laverriere said.

“Chances are, most people are not parking enough downtown to justify what they pay in taxes, but we haven’t done a house-by-house analysis,” Bennett added.

Bennett said the cost of each household’s tax contribution to maintaining downtown parking spaces is probably greater than what the cost would be to pay for parking as it is used. Bennett said a person would have to park downtown six or seven times a week to see their tax contribution amount to a lesser cost than paying for parking on site, and even then, their tax contribution might still be more than pay-for-parking costs would be.

“I’m not trying to convince you, I’m just trying to get you to think of what the implications are,” he said.

At-large City Councilor Laura Seaver said the cost per house of maintaining downtown’s parking spaces would be good information for residents to have.

Tansley told the Courier there were no specific plans on the table to address parking. Councilors didn’t discuss specific next steps for the city’s parking policy, but Bennett said after the meeting that the purpose of the discussion was to get councilors and planning board members to start thinking about what the city’s parking policy should look like.

“It’s really a discussion meant to expand the conversation beyond just simply parking meters,” Bennett said. “At least give everyone an opportunity to understand that whatever decision they make has implications.”

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