Jim Ramondetta said the meters are hurting downtown businesses.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — The Traffic Commission isn't willing to remove meters from the newly opened Columbus Street surface lot but is willing to discuss an overall examination of the entire meter system.
Berkshire Nautilus owner Jim Ramondetta and manager Glen McBurney have been fighting the city over the new meters. Prior to the garage being torn down and replaced, there were free three-hour public spaces.
Ramondetta said his members spend a lot of time there -- even coming back multiple times a day -- and are now having to pay an extra charge. He feels it is hurting his downtown business when there are competitors with large free lots in mini-malls on the outside rim of the city.
"We would prefer the city wouldn't install parking meters in the Summer Street lot and leave it the way it was," McBurney said.
Council Vice President John Krol filed a petition on the gym's behalf to eliminate metered parking in that new lot. That was sent to the Traffic Commission, which on Thursday said it didn't want to consider picking and choosing specific lots to include or not. But, it would consider a new petition to re-examine the entire parking meter plan.
"To single out one area, especially something that is a newly paved lot, and exclude all of the other areas would not be prudent for the city," Chairman Mark Brennan said.
Ramondetta agrees with a re-examination of all of the meters. He said he would like to have them all removed but still hoped for his request to receive a favorable request. Ramondetta said there has not been a true examination as to whether or not the meters were the right decision.
The closest thing Ramondetta found was minutes to a Downtown Pittsfield Inc. meeting in which some of the members expressed frustration. Some of those comments included that people don't know how to use the meters, that there needs to be better signage, that people get panicked and are afraid to use them. Other comments were that the sun makes it difficult to see and that the meters hadn't been marketed enough.
"They found it was hurting businesses. Foot traffic is down," Ramondetta said.
He continued that the only positives mentioned were that there were more spots on North Street and customers liked the free days offered by the city. Ramondetta said that's a sign that people are staying away from North Street because of the meters.
"It is telling you the meters aren't working. People are enjoying free Fridays and there are more spots on North Street because people aren't going downtown," he said.
Downtown Pittsfield Inc., however, said that was not an official survey but rather comments made by a few members at a meeting. President Jesse Cook-Dubin did not deny that those are concerns but said there are positives as well.
"It is not perfect, there is more work to be done," Cook-Dubin said. "Every single problem they said exists does exist."
But, Cook-Dubin said Downtown Pittsfield Inc. does support the metering system. The organization had been involved with the city during the rollout and planning. Cook-Dubin said he'd rather see an overall look at the entire system and build on the strengths and reduce the weaknesses.
"We are in total support of more study," Cook-Dubin said.
The one idea would be to charge at different levels for different areas to help open spaces up on North Street for customers so that employees aren't taking up the spots. Cook-Dubin said there are signs that the meters are doing exactly that.
City Engineer Ricardo Morales backed that up with a presentation. The Department of Public Services had tracked the transactions made in the various locations. The side streets and surface lots off North Street have shown a greater number of paid times. North Street spots showed a greater number of transactions that were just for the free 30 minutes.
Particularly, Morales pointed to the area of Carr Hardware, where there is a lot of off-street parking, showing that nearly all of the transactions on North Street were for 30 minutes or less -- so that parking there were customers.
Upper North, in general, saw 78 percent of the transactions for just the free 30 minutes. In the section of Bradford to Linden streets, 57 percent were free and from Columbus to Summer it was 55 percent.
Meanwhile, the McKay Street and First Street lots showed that 71 percent were staying longer than the free 30 minutes; on Wendell Avenue that was 67 percent; and at Park Square, it was 63 percent. A map Morales created uses those figures to show that the parking behavior has changed.
"We found that the meters are having the result the city was looking for through the parking study," Morales said.
Morales continued to say that providing parking is not a "public good" and that many studies have shown that the benefits of parking meters outweigh the bad.
He said changes to the plan now should be focused on the occupancy of the lots, garages, and streets in hopes to achieve a more balanced parking situation -- raising the price for the higher demand spots and decreasing the price on the areas with less demand.
Downtown Pittsfield Inc. President Jesse Cook-Dubin acknowledged that there are some problems with the system but believes those can be worked out instead of scrapping the whole parking program.
Ramondetta questions if parking behavior even needed to be changed in the first place?
"It seems to me, there was not a need to change the parking behavior," he said.
While the intent of the plan developed by consultants years ago may have been to create more turnover and availability, the motivation behind bringing the consultants on to develop a parking plan was financial.
The state required the city to create some type of system to maintain the McKay Street garage after granting it money to reconstruct it. The state would not give any money to the city if it hadn't taken those steps. That's what led to the consultant developing the plan and implementation, fittingly, was driven by a desire to get state funds to tear down the Columbus Avenue garage and build a new one -- the state never delivered money for that and the city tore it down on its own.
Ramondetta also questioned the economic sense the meters made for the city, calling for a cost-benefit analysis including everything that goes into the system. The Traffic Commission didn't discuss that, but iBerkshires has looked at the numbers in a few ways and it appears the meters are paying for themselves and more.
But, maybe there is another way to raise revenue for parking maintenance, another aspect of why the meters were installed, such as the marijuana tax, Ramondetta suggested.
The final question of Ramondetta has not been answered: is it helping businesses? Ramondetta says no.
McBurney and Ramondetta have watched over the last two weeks as cars file into the lot. Previously, the entire garage would be full and now it is about a third full. He said Barrington Stage's afternoon shows would pack all of the lots and spots in the area but the most recently didn't even fill the new lot.
They watched people standing in line waiting for their chance to figure out how to use the parking kiosks. They don't believe that's the way to welcome people to the downtown.
"We are open to business, we want you downtown, we want you to experience downtown and spend some time," he said.
There are issues with the meters, which Downtown Pittsfield Inc. conceded to Ramondetta. And after two years, the movement is afoot to take a new examination of the system. But, city officials are hesitant to make changes in just one lot until that examination happens.
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