2018-04-19 / Front Page

Parking listening sessions conclude

By Abigail Worthing
Staff Writer

BIDDEFORD – As part of the ongoing discussion between city officials and residents about parking solutions downtown, the city hosted three meetings publicized as “listening sessions.” These meetings allowed residents to speak to officials in an open format about their questions, concerns and comments on the proposition of paid parking.

The first two sessions, on April 5 and April 10, were held before the city council, and the most recent session was advertised as a meeting with “staff” and was held with City Manager James Bennett and Economic Development Director Mathew Eddy at 1:30 p.m., Thursday, April 12.

Bennett’s office sent out a press release prior to the sessions, stating they would be “obtaining public input and comments prior to any parking regulation changes in the downtown area.”

The city has approved the planning phase of a 400-space parking garage and is researching opportunities to change the parking set up downtown, be it with paid lots, parking kiosks or changing time limits for downtown street parking. The garage is slated to be located at the former Maine Energy Recovery Company site on Lincoln Street at a cost of $12 million and will be paid for with both Tax Increment Financing funds and user fees.

The April 12 meeting brought forward issues that have surrounded the debate on downtown parking. Delilah Poupore, executive director of Heart of Biddeford, a downtown revitalization organization, spoke about her recent experiences talking to business owners downtown. Poupore said she believed there is a need to edit the timed on-street spaces, citing the need for shorter, 15-minute limits in front of businesses such as Reilly’s Bakery on Main Street, but longer limits to accommodate tattoo parlors and hair salons.

Poupore also brought up employee parking, adding that it was a resounding concern among business owners. According to Poupore, the current $40 estimate for a monthly municipal lot permit is not something that any of business owners feel they could afford to offer to employees. She requested the city put an employee parking solution on the table. Poupore went on to cite a parking plan implemented in Waterville that uses painted stars to indicate an all-day permit spot.

Matt Lauzon, Biddeford resident and District 12 legislative candidate, requested to let voters have the final say in parking matters, adding that a question could be included during the June primary without spending any extra taxpayer dollars. He suggested that taxpayers to if paid lots should be implemented downtown.

In 2014 a bind referendum was passed that asked voters, “Shall the City of Biddeford install parking meters in the greater downtown Biddeford area?” The vote was 6,761 no and 959 yes.

Lauzon has lobbied extensively for more transparency from city government regarding the parking garage and changes to the parking plan downtown. He took a moment during the meeting to thank the city for releasing a spreadsheet officials have used for reference in parking meetings that details the building, maintenance and per-space costs for a garage. This, he believes, will help residents have a better understanding of the garage and the proposed parking changes.

The spreadsheet was emailed to Lauzon directly from Bennett as part of a Freedom of Access request, but is currently unavailable on the on the city website where answers to those requests are typically posted. Residents can find the link to the spreadsheet on Lauzon’s public Facebook page.

Biddeford City Theater board president Mark Nahorney said parking affects the theater and its patrons. City Theater is a major draw to the downtown area, he said, hosting 61 events last year. According to Nahorney, 25 percent of ticket sales for the theater come from out of state, further asserting that the theater brings business into downtown.

“When people come to the theater, they come for a night out,” Nahorney said.

City Theater goes dark for most of the winter due to lack of covered parking, with Nahorney citing a potential $10,000 loss should a performance be cancelled due to weather. The city and theater work together on parking bans to ensure a show can continue as planned and a ban begins after the show ends. Nahorney suggested that when the city has solidified a new parking plan, it should also consider creating a parking map of the downtown for local businesses to distribute to patrons.

“There’s a vibrancy downtown,” Nahorney said. “Both in where we are and where we are going.”

At the conclusion of the meeting, Bennett talked about the next steps for establishing the garage. He said the council would make the ultimate decision about changes to the parking plan and that all information garnered from the meetings would be passed along and considered. Bennett said once the Lincoln Mill project begins, it will bring 50 jobs to the neighborhood, and that those 50 additional cars would strain parking even further.

It was reported in a February 2016 Courier article that the developer of Lincoln Mill had received a waiver for 184 parking spaces and requested another waiver of 79 parking spaces. The project at the time required 443 parking spaces, according to city ordinances. Spaces available on the site, and on an adjacent lot the company leases from the city for $1 a year, total 180 spaces.

“Usually parking problems don’t get resolved until everyone is screaming for a solution,” Bennett said. “We’re trying to get ahead of it so people don’t suffer.”

The city has only authorized the planning phase of the garage, which required $10,000 from the TIF fund, and will need to approve the building phase when the time comes. Bennett said the city is considering all possible solutions for parking, including adding between four and six time limited spots in the Washington Street lot near George’s Sandwich Shop, adding that the council has recognized the need for such spots in that area.

“We do not want to hurt the revenue stream of businesses,” Bennett said. “We want to address the challenges.”

Contact Staff Writer Abigail Worthing at news@inthecourier.com.

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