Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Letter about parking downtown

I sent this to the city councilors and a few city employees today:

Dear Councilors,

I was unable to attend the parking subcommittee meeting this evening, but wanted to write a brief note. I am the secretary of the Lowell Downtown Neighborhood Association and have lived in Canal Place since 2006. In my time here, I have seen a number of parking issues downtown; however, I am not sure that advertising free parking from four to six during the week and on Saturdays would solve our main problems. Councilor Belanger attended the February LDNA meeting and was receptive to the concerns which many of us voiced. Since that meeting, I have heard that the City said this proposal needs to be revenue-neutral. I feel that this would be counterproductive.

I would say that the single largest issue I see on weekends is that we have perverse incentives around on-street versus in-garage parking leading to empty garages and overflowing street parking. I think this hurts businesses as it gives the impression there is nowhere to park downtown. It becomes worse with every residential unit that opens downtown as that is yet more residents hogging on-street parking.

Ideally, on-street parking should be about 80% full most of the time. On my drive to work today--a weekday--I saw about that. Had I wanted to stop in for a cup of coffee somewhere, I would easily find a spot on the street instead of on the third floor of a garage where the time-tradeoff becomes too great. This is not the case on a Saturday or a Sunday when an on-street parking spot downtown is almost impossible to find and one has to park in a garage. In fact, just this Saturday I asked a friend to drop by for a quick lunch and he was unable to find a short-term space.

When parking spaces close to a business are free and have no time limit, there is no reason to park in long-term parking. This leads to employees, long-term visitors, and especially residents parking for hours, and often days, on the street. They are using a public good for free and hurting business and residents. Free spots or not, we should seriously consider employing a meter maid on Saturdays and maybe even Sundays to enforce a two-hour limit.

The other side of that is of course the garage rates. As I mentioned, the on-street spots work perfectly during the week. Similarly, the garages are usually nearly full with long-term parkers during the week. They are also very busy on weekend evenings with the $5-$10 special event fee. The only time the garages fail to work is on weekend days. We end up paying for staffing and upkeep of these large, empty buildings. Not even the first floor is full. Clearly, with so many cars on the street, there is demand…so why aren't they in the garage? Some downtowns the size of Lowell's offer a free first hour in the garage, and some have greatly reduced or free weekend parking rates. Sometimes, this is combined with non-free Saturday on-street parking, and certainly with time limits for prime spots. We should explore these options, even if they are not revenue-neutral.

We should also consider having additional short-term parking on the first floor of the garages and making sure our garages are safe and attractive places. Of course, do whatever we can to encourage walking, biking, and taking the bus downtown in the first place.

Thanks for reading my letter. We plan to have Mayor Elliott and potentially some representatives from the garage security company at our March meeting, which will be Monday, March 24th, 7PM at LTC.


Corey Sciuto