More on downtown parking

The issue of parking in downtown Lowell is getting some attention. It was discussed at last week’s economic development subcommittee and downtown resident Corey Sciuto posted a letter he sent to councilors on the issue on his own blog. This morning I found a lengthy comment from a regular reader named Brian on my economic development subcommittee post. Brian caught a replay of that meeting and shared his thoughts on what took place. Rather than leave it as a comment to a week-old blog post, I have reposted Brian’s comment below in its entirety since this is an ongoing issue.

I finally had a chance to watch this meeting on LTC.

It’s amazing how much misinformation is out there. Many things stuck out to me. There was a disconnect between C Kennedy and Mr Troupe. C Kennedy mentioned Burlington VT offers 2 hours free parking in the central business district. Mr Troupe said he wasn’t aware of such practices and it’s unanimous within parking associations that paid meters helps businesses by creating parking turnover in front of stores/restaurants.

Why didn’t C Kennedy clarify to Mr Troupe that parking in Burlington VT is ONLY free for 2 hours in the GARAGES? Parking on-street at meters in Burlington VT is enforced Mon-Sat 8am-6pm and is consistent with the parking association Mr Troupe belongs to.

C Kennedy then says we shouldn’t ticket cars who are there for “short term, in and out” business on the first pass. These are the spots that need THE MOST ENFORCEMENT! If there isn’t turnover at those spots people are going to keep driving until they find an open spot somewhere else, if downtown at all, and probably not want to walk back to the originally intended destination. This would also create a negative impression in the drivers mind and reinforces that parking in downtown sucks thus reducing the chance of a return visit.

Karen Bell of The Club then took to the podium and had A LOT to say. She said hiring new personnel would cost more than the 30k in revenue the city gets from meters from 4-6pm and weekends because of their salaries, vacation, and benefits. What she isn’t factoring in is most people know not to feed the meters after 4pm so 30k is artificially low. If meter enforcement actually went till 6pm and all day Saturday we’d collect a lot more than 30k AND increase The Clubs membership.

She spoke to 50 businesses and 300 residents who signed a petition saying they don’t want more enforcement. I’m not surprised by the residents. Who wants to park in a garage all weekend when you can park your car in front of Majors from Friday at 4pm till Monday morning at 9am. I am surprised so many businesses would sign the petition. All you have to do is a little online research and see what other successful cities are doing and try and mimic that. Is it possible they are all wrong and we’re right? Yes, but I doubt it.

She then said the restaurants have “given up on the lunch crowd anyway” so downtown enforcement is *okay* and that Chantilly place left the city because of parking so you *do need* parking enforcement. So what is it Karen? What is the difference between daytime students, lawyers, defendants, and employees cars and nighttime residents, employees, and visitors cars? Nothing! Why do people get a free ride when restaurants/gyms need those open spots the most?

Karen said people fight the perception of “am I going to get a ticket if I have to go to Lowell for a meal”. That’s crap. People just know there won’t be any open on-street spots in downtown Lowell on a Thurs, Fri, or Sat night. And people feel like they’re getting ripped off by parking in the garage when “everyone else” is parking for free.

She then goes on to say we certainly don’t need parking enforcement on Sat when people are going to the malls, Andover, Nashua, or Haverhill where they DON’T HAVE METERS.

This is FALSE. I’ve paid for metered parking at Andover’s lot in the heart of downtown.
Nashua has meter enforcement from Mon-Sat 9-7pm at its busiest areas but has free parking in the garages all day Saturday.
Haverhill enforces metered parking from 3-8pm Mon-Friday but does allow free parking on Sat so in that regard they are as misguided as Lowell.
Lawrence enforces metered parking Mon-Sat 9:30-6pm but allows free 2 hour parking in some garages.

The only way downtown can compete with the malls, route 38′s, and drum hills is to offer FREE parking in the garages for the first 60-90 minutes AND enforce metered parking till at least 8pm(most people go out to eat or work out between 4-8pm) and ALL DAY Saturday. Induce demand by offering limited free parking where people don’t want to park and properly enforce the most sought after spaces.

The only debate should be how long and/or when to offer free parking in the garages. We need to move the conversation if downtown Lowell is to thrive once again.

16 Responses to More on downtown parking

  1. Lydia says:

    Thank you! Why ddon’t people realize that residents would have permanent street spots if they were free or not enforced. We need turnover.

  2. Meghan Moore says:

    Brian’s suggestion that the garages offer the first hour free might be the best suggestion of all. I am envious because I didn’t think of it first. If the garage is free for the first hour, I guarantee my behavior will change. I won’t circle downtown looking for a spot – I’ll drive right to the garage.

    And if my meeting goes long or I want to linger over a meal with friends or clients, I won’t have the worry of a parking ticket in the back of my mind, because I can just leave the car where it is in the garage, and pay for the privilege on my way out.

  3. Paul says:

    Dick, thank you for raising this topic again. It was needed. I was incensed by Ms Bell’s misinformation about Nashua and other places. I also wonder if all those businesses she surveyed would agree with all the issues she was raising. Her survey sounded quite limited in its data request. We should be encouraging turnover at the meters and people to park in the garages for longer periods.

  4. C R Krieger says:

    Out near Beaver Creek, Ohio, (Daytn area) is a large and thriving mall where the parking meters are voluntary and the coins go to charity.  There is also lots of “lot” parking and it is all on private property.

    Yes, there must be turn-over, but it is a problem open to creative thinking.

    Regards  —  Cliff

  5. Brian says:

    Thanks for giving this topic some focus.

    Something to consider… The taxpayer owns both the streets and the garages. Why are we giving away the best spots for free on nights and weekends for personal storage of residents’ cars?

  6. Gai says:

    One thing that I would add to the discussion of Nashua’s parking, is that it is also zoned. So parking in the lot behind Nashua City Hall could have a different hourly rate, than parking in front of Wingate Pharmacy. Parking in Lowell garage is more expensive than a Nashua garage. In theory Lowell is using the $$ to cover the costs of the garage and to build a new one. However they take $$ out of the parking fund for other things. Parking should be used as an asset, not as a cash cow.

    I would also add, if one were to pick up, the Club or Major’s Pub and plop it down in a shopping plaza in the ‘burbs, that business would have to contribute to the plaza’s common parking for maintenance, lighting, plowing, and holiday decorations. Those costs would be passed on to their customers. It is in the best interest of Lowell to have thriving businesses in the downtown and other areas of the city. However, I feel these owners are being short-sighted if they think unlimited free on-street parking is the solution. Patrons should be encouraged to park in the garages. The club has a parking garage across the street and Major’s has a garage practically kitty corner. Patrons probably walk farther to get to available on-street parking

  7. Joe S. says:

    I don’t believe the parking enterprise fund is used as a cash cow, although it was in the past. In addition to funding operation, maintenance and new garage construction, the parking fund must also fund an impending capital improvement to the existing garages (estimated at over $6M for the 2 most needy garages, Roy and Lower Locks) as well as the recent expansion of the on-street parking zones.

    As for the “free” on-street parking after 4pm and on Saturday, I believe it is a mistake, and for the council to double-down on that would result in even less business for the downtown. The suggestions of Brian, Brian and Gail should be given consideration by the city council, as those would be more benefial to the downtown merchants without short-changing the parking fund that will need the revenue for maintenance, operation and capital improvements.

  8. Don Greenwood says:

    Thanks for reposting this. The comments help clarify the issue that both residents and businesses face in any urban area. I do frequent the downtown restaurants, cafés and other establishments. Without metered parking on the streets, more difficulty finding a parking spot would discourage me as well. Perhaps reducing the meter rate in the evening without hiring additional enforcement could bring in additional revenue while prompting turnover. I have personally observed the confusion by non residents thinking that parking is enforced in the evening. I would gladly pay for the opportunity to find an open spot nearby the places i like to visit.

  9. Brian says:

    The plot thickens…the State Smart Transportation Initiative in Madison, Wisconsin has done research on why, since 1960, cities like Lowell, New Haven, and Hartford have lagged behind cities like Cambridge, Berkeley CA and Arlington VA. PARKING!!!

    “The resulting analysis shows how three of these cities have diverged from the other three since the base year of 1960. Arlington, Berkeley, and Cambridge went against the postwar grain and chose a “parking-light” approach: emphasizing transportation demand management (TDM) measures, while de-emphasizing driving and in one case even penalizing parking construction. Hartford, Lowell, and New Haven chose a conventional approach, emphasizing that downtown development should provide “adequate” parking based upon standards of the time.”

    Who are the biggest land owners of downtown surface parking lots? Lowell Five, Enterprise Bank, Jeanne D’arc, The Worthen, The Athenian and Notinis(we know the national park is trying to give theirs to Trinity for the HCD)

    If the afore mentioned lots were converted to 3-4 story mixed use developments we’d generate a lot more in tax revenue than the parking lots currently do.

    This is a powerful quote “The conventional cities made the decisions to prioritize parking and driving typical of so many other American cities at the time. Arlington, Berkeley, and Cambridge belonged to a much smaller group of cities which recognized that cars “created a tradeoff: Do you make a dense, valuable urban place, or an area where you can drive easily?” As McCahill says, “You’re not going to be able to do both really well.”

    You can’t do both *really* well. If those lots were to go get developed we need to incentivize parking the garages. I’m not sure this council has the vision or political will to make it happen.

    Maybe it’s time for a parking commission in Lowell.

  10. Gail says:

    I think one of the challenges is that downtown Lowell has not had the growth necessary for residents to sustain downtown businesses. Until that happens, the city needs to offer competitive parking solutions to allow businesses to compete against the suburbs where parking is plentiful and free (e.g., first two hours of parking are free in the garages). One of the reasons that Trinity wanted the park service’s lot is that in order to compete with the 495 business corridor more parking was needed. The city also has to be pedestrian friendly so that people. I think the rule of thumb used to be that people would prefer to walk someplace that was 10 minutes or less away. If it is a pleasant walk, that could increase in time. Not being discussed is the last I knew the state was only planning on parking for judges and prisoner transport at the new court house. Employees and jurors are expected to park at the Early Garage.

  11. Paul says:

    Brian, thank you for your comments. I read through the article and I find its position quite stimulating. But, I wonder whether or not some Lowell, Hartford and New Haven’s problems might also be linked to their remoteness from a larger core unlike Berkeley, Arlington and Cambridge which are all linked into an urban rail mass transit system. While Lowell and New Haven do have commuter rail access to the inner core, they both have fairly limited public transit access. Hartford has no commuter rail and I am not sure what type of public transit it has.
    I do believe that parking lots are a large problem for Lowell. Not only are they unsightly, but their owners frequently aren’t concerned with pedestrian traffic near by. I find that in winter parking lots have the most snowbank blocked or unshovelled sidewalks. They are also frequently trash strewn and overgrown with invasive plant species.
    It seems to me the perhaps ex Mayor Murphy’s proposal to change the tax structure so that land would be taxed rather than or more than improved structures on them. I was not 100% clear on how his proposals would work, but they did seem like they might help. One way or another Lowell still has a transportation problem. While bicycles & trains work to some extant, the LRTA is woefully inadequate and MBTA service could also be improved. I guess that my point in all this rambling is that I believe the problem to be far more complex than just having too many parking lots, which I do believe is a problem here, especially the paved over expanse type.

  12. Brian says:

    I believe Trinity has plans to develop the National Park surface parking lot into something other than parking.

    The city of Lowell, especially downtown, needs to stop forgoing tax revenue by mandating a certain # of parking spaces on new development. If we can find more uses for parking lots in downtown it can bring in a ton of revenue.

    One remedy would be to tax parking lots higher than buildings. This would cause landowners to stop sitting on parking lots and induce some new construction in the downtown.

    We also need to focus on *complete streets* where streets are designed for use by pedestrians, cyclists, cars, and mass transit.

    People who complain about Fr Morr. Blvd having bike lanes are ignorant. There has been little or NO increase in traffic congestion because of the bike lanes, regardless of how many bikers *haven’t* been using the lanes. Bike lanes need to interconnect with something to be useful. I think some people are just afraid of change and assume bike lanes are a bad idea.

    Dutton St is ripe for an upgrade and could connect the bike lane to the train station. Dutton St was modified to allow speeds up to 40-50 mph yet is broken up by traffic signals where you go 0 mph at red lights. How about reducing Dutton St to 2 lanes, adding metered parking and a bike lane, while reducing the speed limit to 20 mph?

    This would reinvigorate the area from the Sun building to Merrimack St. People wouldn’t actually be afraid(of cars) and embarrassed to walk on the north side of Dutton St. The vacant Merrimack Rug building would fill up in a heartbeat. That area has been choked off of the downtown for far too long!

    Instead of moving the high school, why not relocate the dullest building and waste of open space in the city….the police headquarters and JFK plaza. Let’s reconnect Moody St to Arcand drive.

    Upper Merrimack St could be the next frontier if we can cease having such a small town mentality. The “move the high school movement” is a waste of energy when we all REALLY want the same thing. The best mid-sized city in America.

  13. Joe S. says:

    Brian, the Trinity plan for the Hamilton Canal Districts indeed has major commercial properties developed at the Dutton Street NPS parking lot. In exchange for that land, the city must commit an equal number of parking spots in a to-be-developed parking garage just adjacent to the current lot.

    Mayor Murphy proposed that the city pursue a land-use policy that allowed different tax rates for land versus buildings, shifting the burden from the building to the land, thereby discouraging under-use of valuable property. That would obviously require State approval, and a lot of thought on how to best implement that. However, the end result would be more productive use of the downtown property.

    Meanwhile, the city could at least modify its parking policies to use them to better serve the downtown as you and Gail have suggested. Unfortunately, the same vision is not shared by certain members of the city council who currently appear to have the loudest voices.

  14. Brian says:

    Thanks for your comments JoeS. It’s apparent you come from a place where your only agenda is to make Lowell a better place.

    Might I suggest reading the Strong Towns blog?

    It has a wealth of content on how to make cities/towns better for less money. They also have some great podcasts I listen to when in car.

  15. Brian says:

    Here’s another example of a city that prices parking right and has a thriving downtown.
    Birmingham MI—“A Walkable Community”

    “Parking in one of the five City-owned parking decks is easy, convenient and much less expensive than metered street parking and there are no time limits. The first 2 hours are free in all five of the City-owned parking decks, and parking is always free on Sundays.”
    “Hours of operation at parking meters are Monday through Saturday, from 9:00 AM to 9:00 PM.”

    They offer free parking for 2 hours in the garages and enforce metered parking till 9pm and on Saturday. They are a small city of 20k and right next to BANKRUPT Detroit yet Google decided to open an office there. It’s laughable to think a Google or Twitter would locate in DTL.

    Downtown Lowell will never attract more visitors or established businesses unless it’s more walkable. Pricing metered and garage parking *right* is an easy first step to take. Parking isn’t the be-all-end-all but we shouldn’t be shooting ourselves in the foot with our current parking rates and policies either.