The plaza parking lot off Main Street on an afternoon in early December. A study by Williams College students found it had only a 24 percent utilization rate.
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — The city is flush with parking spots — little of which are used.
North Adams has nearly 3,000 public and private parking spots in the downtown area but rarely more than a third are in use at any one time.
A group of Williams College students spent this fall researching the number and utilization of parking spaces, coming up with data on the most and least used and offering some suggestions. They presented their results last Wednesday to a small group of city officials and residents.
"I asked them to think out of the box," said City Planner Mackenzie Greer. "Once the students had a sense of how much parking is being used, to give us some ideas on how we can manage our parking."
Paul De Konkoly Thege, Benjamin Corwin, Jessica Luning and Daniel Zilkha, juniors and seniors in professor Sarah Gardner's environmental planning course, toted up the number of parking spaces and developed charts to show peak times for usage, and reported on anectdotal surveys of motorists and pedestrians.
"Parking lots take up space. It is important to use the city's space in the best way to meet the city's needs," said Luning. "We were also considering how drivers and pedestrians get downtown ... parking can affect people's abilities to access downtown."
Greer noted that the city's Vision 2030 master planning recommended looking at the parking conditions in the downtown. Residents attending the planning meetings said they wanted easier pedestrian access; the plan also encourages biking.
"There is sort of myriad perceptions about parking," she said. "We want to look at where do we have parking and whether it is being utilized."
What the students found was that there was an intensity of parking in select areas: at City Hall and the Brien Center weekdays, regularly at Dunkin' Donuts and on Eagle Street on weekends. The least used included the St. Anthony Municipal Parking Lot (26 percent) and the former Kmart plaza (24).
They counted 2,828 spaces total, and although the rule of thumb is to use a 70 percent utilization
as a base, the students had to revise it down to 55 percent for North Adams. They counted cars in every lot at various times during the weeks. They also interviewed stakeholders including Mayor Richard Alcombright, Zoning Board Chairman Donald Pecor and North Adams Chamber of Commerce President Glenn Maloney.
What they found was that there is excess parking yet the city's zoning requirements for parking can be an impediment, such as for the former Methodist Church; that the city doesn't need more space for commercial structures but there was a desire for more green space, such as a town common; that there is a need for signage to parking.
"It's a little bit confusing to visitors and drives them to Mass MoCA, which is the most visually and the least confusing of the parking," said De Konkoly Thege.
Luning said the proliferation of parking coincided with urban renewal and the tendency for communities at that time to plan around cars rather than pedestrians. Since then, the city's population has dramatically dropped. Corwin said their recommendations were on making "human scale development" instead, including "simple adjustments that better match the supply and demand."
Among their recommendations was returning Summer Street to two-way traffic by removing parking spaces within the plaza that block the route; remove the row of spaces along Route 2 at Big Y to create green space and move the sidewalk away from the highway; look at how businesses utilize parking and create regulations to match; and dramatically raise parking violation fees (now at $5).
More elaborate plans included tearing down the former Sleepy's to create a town common or using some of Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art's overflow parking behind Big Y for a dog park or river access.
The goal, said students, was to make the city more walkable and reduce the sea of asphalt.
"It validates a lot of the things we've been hearing the last couple of years," said Alcombright. "We have this corridor of blacktop ... It also validates the fact that we have way too many parking spots in the city."
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