2016-10-13 / Front Page

Notre Dame: parking could be waived

By Anthony Aloisio
Staff Writer

SACO – The planning board discussed different visions for the future of urban life around Main Street, and specifically for vehicle parking, for the proposed development of Notre Dame de Lourdes church on Cutts Avenue. The board made a positive recommendation to the city council that the development be partly relieved of its requirement to provide parking space.

As the Courier reported in its Sept. 22 and Oct. 6 issues, Hardypond Development is seeking to renovate the church building to include residential units, and to tear down the rectory and construct two new buildings on the property, totaling around 80 residential units. Hardypond heard ideas for mixing in commercial space and for publicly open space at a community meeting held on Sept. 29.

At the same meeting, the community discussed problems of vehicle parking that the development could create.

Section 708 of Saco’s Zoning Ordinance requires 1.5 parking spaces for every dwelling unit in a multifamily residential development and 0.5 spaces if those spaces are restricted to elderly residents. Further, that section categorically reduces parking space requirements by half in the B-3 district, which includes the Notre Dame properties.

“Downtowns work best when not dominated by parking lots,” City Planner Bob Hamblen told the Courier, regarding the council’s reduction of the parking requirement in the B-3 district.

Hamblen said off-street parking requirements have to be balanced with the existence of on street parking in a downtown.

“Successful downtowns include healthy competition for parking spaces,” Hamblen added.

By Hardypond’s calculation, the zoning ordinance would require 46.5 parking spaces for the planned development. The contract zone agreement, submitted by Hardypond and forwarded with positive recommendation by the planning board, would reduce the requirement to 33 spaces.

The same as at the Sept. 29 community meeting, the request was met with skepticism, primarily by Board Member Peter Scontras. Bill Mann, Saco economic development director, spoke to defend the parking waiver.

“(Downtown property) is very valuable,” Mann said, “so if you have to take a portion of it up for surface parking, or even underground parking, versus housing units, it drives the development of the property up on a per-unit basis, therefore translating into higher rents.”

If the city desires to increase affordability and urban density, Mann said, removing off-street parking requirements for residential developments is recommended. To support this idea, Mann cited to a report and recommendation originating from the White House and received by him through a recent national conference on economic development. A fundamental idea informing that recommendation, Mann said, is that as urban density increases, less automobiles are needed by residents.

Bob Gaudreau, vice president of Hardypond, agreed with this idea, and added that demographics are also an important factor.

“It’s showing up that the millennials will not come with cars,” Gaudreau said.

Mann also pointed out that technological developments in traffic management and public transportation are underway that will likely benefit an urban residential environment.

Scontras offered criticism.

“The reality of today is that people have to work,” Scontras said. “When you’re talking about public transportation you’re talking about cities that aren’t like Saco.”

Included in Hardypond’s presentation to the planning board was a 2010 report by the Institute of Transportation Engineers that described parking demand rates for suburban and urban low/mid-rise apartment buildings. According to that report, the average weekday parking demand for a suburban area was 1.23 vehicles per dwelling unit. The report as presented to the board did not contain data for an urban area.

Hardypond also presented empirical support from a website, walkscore.com, that scores geographic locations based on the types of businesses – e.g., groceries, shopping, entertainment – that are within walking distance of the location. The planned development scored 78 out of 100, which is rated as “very walkable.”

In addition, Gaudreau argued that new residents would avoid having cars because of parking demand.

“The occupants are gonna know that this is the limit,” Gaudreau said. “You can’t bring two cars.”

Scontras remained skeptical.

“I’m thinking about Saco, Maine,” Scontras said. “I’m thinking ‘where are the jobs?’ And, a lot of the jobs are not in Saco, Maine, or Biddeford, Maine. They’re outside the area, and you have to get there. I understand what you’re saying, I understand the research, I understand the studies, but, I tell you, this is Saco, Maine. I think about the way it is here, the way people think in Saco, Maine.”

During public comment for the contract zone agreement, attendees spoke both for and against parking relief.

“I have bought into the new urbanism that you’ve spoke about,” said Marc Dial, a Middle Street resident. “I’m getting rid of cars. I want to live downtown so I can walk to things.”

Also speaking was Glenn Moseley, a member of the Saco United Baptist Church, who lives on Shannon Lane.

“As a member of the church, whenever we have a major function or a major holiday, Christmas and Easter, weddings, funerals, parking is at a premium,” Moseley said. “And to add 40-plus vehicles to this immediate area, I think it would be questionable.”

“I think that 33 (spaces) is too low,” Moseley added. “I think that 47 is too low.”

After the public hearing, board members and city staff reflected on the ideas presented.

“I’m looking at this as a test for downtown Saco,” said board member Rene Ittenbach. “I just keep going back to old European towns. They don’t have parking, it’s all walk traffic.”

“It’s a new thinking,” Scontras said. “Things take a while to get to Maine.”

“It could work. I wish that it would work. I really do, because downtown needs a shot,” Scontras added.

“If you’re looking for a more urban environment, you have to put up with a little bit tougher parking situation,” said board member Michael O’Toole. “I’m not saying we’re trying to be like Boston, I’m just saying that, on the grand scale of things.”

For his part, Mann read a quote from Abraham Lincoln.

“‘The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present,’” Mann said. “‘The occasion is piled high with difficulty. And we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, we must think anew and act anew.’”

“I agree with the economic development director one hundred percent,” Scontras said in reply. “This is the first one. I’m not saying don’t do it, I’m saying, let’s do it right. That’s change.”

In related news, the Courier this week spoke to Ward 4 City Councilor Kevin Roche about Hardypond’s sought use of tax increment financing (TIF) for the development. As reported in Courier’s Oct. 6 issue, Mann defended the planned TIF use by saying it was a net positive value for the city. TIF allows local governments to create financial incentives for developers in the form of rebates from assessed taxes. However, Roche disagrees with the way Mann would have TIF used.

“TIFs are not meant for residential apartment development,” Roche said.

According to Roche, Mill No. 4 development on Saco Island also used TIF, and that precedent should not be followed.

“One, there was gonna be commercial development on the first floor. Two, that was a . . . decrepit building in the middle of Saco Island, the entrance to Saco, Maine,” Roche said. “But the warning for that was ‘if you do that, other apartment developers are gonna come in and poke around,’ and, sure enough, here’s the one.”

Roche also disagrees that TIF operates the way that Mann explains.

“You’re making the assumption that that’s dollar-for-dollar back to the taxpayer,” Roche said. “That is just simply not true.”

Roche is also disappointed at a lack of transparency in the process.

“To date, (the) council has not been presented with the value of the property nor the TIF percentage sought by the developer,” Roche wrote in an email to the Courier.

He also expressed concern with the way Mann is pursuing economic development business.

“He works for the city of Saco, he does not work for the developer,” Roche said. “He’s picking winners and losers, and that is not his job. His job is to market Saco.”

As a supporting example, Roche pointed to the discussion of closing Pepperell Square to vehicle traffic.

The Courier contacted Mann for response.

“Our effort is to present this fine community in the most business-friendly fashion possible,” Mann wrote in an email, “to all who are seeking any sort of information or assistance from the city of Saco, to aid them with their existing business, to help them expand their business, or help them to see why Saco is a fine choice to locate their business. To the extent that this effort has been characterized otherwise is simply inaccurate.”

Mann also said he is making efforts to speak directly with Roche about his concerns and added that regarding Hardypond’s use of TIF, they have expressed intent to use it but have not formally requested it.

Regarding the discussion of parking requirement relief for Hardypond, Roche called it “a legitimate debate.”

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