PITTSFIELD, Mass. — For the third time in four months, the City Council said it wants to have a full conversation about downtown parking.
But it still hasn't determined how to do that — whether that means hiring a consultant or doing it internally. On Tuesday, the council agreed to have the city solicitor craft an order to have the newly constructed Summer Street surface lot have 90 minutes of free parking instead of the current 30 minutes. But not before many councilors called for a wider examination of the overall plan.
"We need an overview, a real look at how parking has been working," said Ward 2 Councilor Kevin Morandi.
Councilors have been calling for a new comprehensive look at the downtown parking meter plan since May after Berkshire Nautilus owner Jim Ramondetta voiced frustration that when the Columbus Avenue parking garage was torn down, the meters took the place of free 90-minute parking. Ramondetta said the meters put his business at a competitive disadvantage and threaten his membership base.
Ward 6 Councilor John Krol then filed a petition on his behalf to remove the meters from the lot. That led to a lengthy discussion about the meters during which most councilors said the city should take a new, wide-angle look at the effectiveness of the meters now that they have been in operation for 2 1/2 years. Councilors argued whether it would wise to change one lot before that comprehensive study.
That conversation continued on Tuesday with another lengthy debate. Seven councilors voted in favor of allowing 90 minutes of free parking in the Summer Street lot while four felt changing things on a whim is even worse for the downtown.
"What frustrates people the most is us constantly changing things and not having the information," said Councilor at Large Earl Persip.
Ward 3 Councilor Nicholas Caccamo said making changes to the system piecemeal is only going to cause more confusion among the public. He doesn't believe the city should make any changes until the re-examination is done.
"If we are going to think of parking as a whole, we need to step back and remove ourselves for the time being," he said.
Caccamo is in favor of bringing on a consultant who specializes in collecting and analyzing parking management plans. He said the downtown has changed a bit and the plan hadn't included such things as Wayfair's 300 new jobs that will be coming. Caccamo said nobody on the council has experience in parking management so it is worth holding off and crafting an updated plan.
"Doing this piecemeal is a bad idea," he said.
Doing it piecemeal is what was cited years ago as a reason to bring on a consultant to create the parking plan in the first place in 2014. The state required the city to have a plan to bring in sufficient revenues to keep up with the maintenance of parking infrastructure after awarding the city a grant to rebuild the McKay Street garage.
Nelson/Nygaard Consulting Associates was hired and the company particularly cited an entanglement of various types of parking and confusing signage and lack of clarity as being problematic at the time. Surveys also showed that many people were leaving downtown when a parking spot near their destination couldn't be found.
The consultant developed a demand-based system intended to move vehicles being parked for a longer period of time off North Street and onto surface lots to increase turnover on the main drag.
According to city officials, that plan has changed parking behaviors and data so far has shown that those who stay longer downtown are parking in surface lots and side streets while on-street parking has a quicker turnover. The hope is to ensure parking spaces are available for customers of downtown businesses and that people don't drive away when they can't find a spot close.
Morandi, however, said the McKay Street and Summer Street surface lots are not well used on a daily basis so if the intent was to encourage the use of those, it isn't working. He believes the meters are deterring customers from going downtown altogether rather than making it easier for them to find parking. He supported changing the Summer Street lot to 90 minutes because that might help the businesses.
"We need people in our downtown. We need people coming in here and patronizing our stores," Morandi said.
Morandi opposes the city hiring a consultant and believes the council can make changes to find the right answer.
Councilor at Large Melissa Mazzeo isn't convinced that the plan is helping businesses retain customers either. She thinks there are more spots available downtown because fewer people are going there. While the data shows the city is generating revenue to maintain parking infrastructure, she feels that is coming at the expense of downtown businesses.
"This wasn't supposed to be a money grab," Mazzeo said. "We may be making great money but they are not."
She added that "overzealous" parking attendants haven't helped.
The city's move to a license plate reading system for ticketing has improved efficiency in patrolling parking but it has not helped the public embrace the system as people tend to get ticketed much quicker than in the past. That has not gone unnoticed by residents and it has been well talked about on social media.
When it comes to the Summer Street lot, even with free 90-minute parking, customers will still need to use the kiosk. Commissioner of Public Services David Turocy said enforcing is easier if the city stays with the system it used throughout the downtown.
"I would recommend yes because how would you know when the 90 minutes start? We could go back to chalking tires but we have license plate readers," Turocy said
Consistency has been a struggle in the conversation. Krol said the roll out of the entire plan has been inconsistent and done in the piecemeal way some councilors fear with making changes now.
"It wasn't like we did the order and everything was done," he said.
The city followed some of the plans suggested by Nelson/Nygaard but not all. Nelson/Nygaard's plan itself identified areas like the Melville Street lot as staying with free three-hour parking and no meters while what was originally intended to be a new parking garage on the Summer Street parcel was to be metered. The city held off from installing meters on the First Street lot until it was redone and held off on the garage until it was turned into a surface lot.
Ramondetta feels that the surface lot on Melville is not all that different nor that far from the Summer Street lot and yet the two are treated differently.
"It seems, at best, an inadvertent pick of winners and losers by the administration," Ramondetta said.
Mazzeo suggested having the three downtown surface lots currently metered have 90 minutes free (Melville is not metered). She believes that brings a bit more equity to the system until bigger changes are made. That failed by one vote, with Krol, Morandi, Connell, and Ward 5 Councilor Donna Todd Rivers siding with her and the rest voting that amendment down.
"It confuses people. Let's do 90 minutes on all of the surface lots," Mazzeo said.
Ward 4 Councilor Christopher Connell suggested making the Summer Street lot a mix. He said he'd like to see certain spots in the lot be identified as 90-minutes of free parking, other spots have 30-minutes free as is there currently, and other spots be for permits. He said the different spots could be color coordinated so that people know which spot is which. He feels that helps businesses by catering to the different types of customers while still keep the revenue stream for parking infrastructure maintenance in place.
Connell doesn't support bringing in a consultant to do a new analysis, he thinks the city can handle updating the plan on its own.
"I don't think we have to send this off to a consultant. We can look at the revenue that is generated from each one of these kiosks and can determine how many people are parking there and then we can work our way back so we have a combination lot," he said.
Krol agrees that a consultant is needed, saying the city councilors are charged with making these types of decisions.
Nearly all councilors weighed in with their thoughts on the matter, all with a slightly different take on the situation and Persip said that's exactly why a consultant is needed — to give a professional and independent look at the plan.
"I heard four or five different opinions here, so who makes the decision if we don't have a consultant?" Persip said. "Let's hire someone who professionally does this for $30,000 so we have clear data ... Everyone has a different plan for each lot, who gets charged, who does not, how much, what color are the lines."
Councilor at Large Peter White said a consultant will provide a missing piece of data that the city currently doesn't have — whether or not it is good or bad for business. The city knows that the meters are generating revenue and knows that it is increasing turnover. But, the city doesn't have any concrete data on that subjective aspect of whether or not businesses are benefiting, being harmed, or unaffected by the meters.
"We can get that last piece of data that we don't have," White said.
White said the state and outlook of the downtown have changed over the last few years and that there were things not considered before such as the demand for permits for individual lots that could be examined. Connell, however, said an analysis of the commercial impact is going to be more expensive than the estimated $30,000 to bring Nelson/Nygaard back to update its previous study.
Nonetheless, after four months of discussion about the meter plan the City Council did take one step toward making changes.
In a 7-4 vote, the council approved asking the city solicitor's office to craft a traffic order to make the Summer Street lot 90 minutes of free parking. Once that is crafted, the council will then take a vote on whether or not the free time in the lot will change from the current 30 minutes of free parking.