John Krol doesn't see the need to bring back the consultant at a cost. Instead he suggestW having the free time on the meters be increased to 90 minutes in the lots.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — In a split 3-2 vote, the City Council's Ordinance and Rules subcommittee recommended 90-minute parking in the newly constructed Summer Street lot.
It also urged the administration to bring back the original consultant to do an updated analysis of the parking meter plan.
The recommendation comes after the city tore down the Columbus Avenue parking garage and built a surface lot in its place.
After creating the lot, the kiosks were installed and Berkshire Nautilus owner Jim Ramondetta voiced opposition to the move, saying it will hurt his business. That led Ward 6 City Councilor to file a petition asking for those meters to be removed.
"I want to make sure this stays focused about what this is about. This is about Columbus Avenue and that parking lot," Krol said in preface Monday evening before the discussion.
The City Council had already prepped to turn the petition into a wholesale review of the meters. Before being sent to the subcommittee, multiple councilors expressed frustration with various aspects of the metering system as a whole and used the petition to call for a wider scope in the review. The administration prepared a lengthy report covering the history, finances, usage, and overall management of the entire system on Monday.
What Mayor Linda Tyer called a "comprehensive overview" of the system gave the councilors a lot of information and a number voiced the desire not to hold a vote that evening while they took time to digest the report. Ultimately, the conversation led to requests for the mayor to bring back Nelson Nygaard, the consultant who first drafted the parking management plan in 2014, to take a fresh, independent look at the changes since the implementation and develop updated plans for the entire system.
"I think we need the global study if we are going to make any changes," said Councilor at Large Peter White, joined by Nicholas Caccamo, who first suggested bringing back a consultant, and Melissa Mazzeo in support of taking a new look at it.
But even that came with split opinions. Councilors Krol and Donna Todd Rivers felt a six-month process with a consultant, which comes at a financial cost, is unneeded.
"I'm not convinced we need a consultant on this one. I think there are some common sense changes we can make," Krol said.
Tyer said the administration is in support of bringing the consultant back and could have them under contract soon. She suggested using revenue from the parking meters to pay for the updated analysis, which would require the City Council's support for the expense.
"We want to take a global approach and not looking at individual lots," Tyer said. "We need to get under contact with them. We possibly need to come back to you for an appropriation."
Director of Community Development Deanna Ruffer was particularly concerned about the petition for just one lot, saying tinking with one area at a time without keeping in mind the impacts that will have on the entire management system could end up with more negative results than positive ones. She further added that the administration has been monitoring and planning the next steps with the system and to make changes piecemeal would create confusion among the public.
"It is time to re-evaluate and re-engage a consultant. Everybody seems to be on the same page with that," Director of Finance Matthew Kerwood, who provided a financial overview of the system, said.
The majority of people in the room agreed. But, therein lies a grey area.
The original plan developed by the consultants and mostly adopted by the City Council in 2016 calls for the Columbus Avenue parking garage to be metered. The plan was to rebuild a new three-story garage but the city never got state funding and it was turned into a surface lot instead -- which is not what the metering plan was based on. The meters were never put into the former garage as officials waited until it was rebuilt. Once the lot was built, the city determined to go ahead with the plan adopted for meters.
Mazzeo didn't see a reason why that surface lot couldn't be treated the same as the Melville Street lot, which is a mix of three-hour parking and permit parking. While Rivers urging to keep it the same as it has been until now while the city waits for a new examination. Rivers supporting bringing local volunteers and stakeholders to serve as a downtown parking committee to make recommendations to the system as a whole instead of a consultant.
Ultimately, the vote was to remove the meters, at least for now, and go back to 90-minute parking in that lot. However, there was an overwhelming desire by both a majority of those on the committee and the administration to bring the consultant back and make changes to the entire system, which could include the new surface lot.
The parking meters have been a point of contention since being implemented in 2017. But the discussion dates back much longer, according to Ruffer.
"As early as 1999 there was a great deal of discussion about parking management," Ruffer said.
Then Berkshire Regional Planning Commission developed a report regarding circulation in the downtown. In 2002, a parking summit was held and a downtown advisory committee was organized. In 2004, the city tried diagonal parking and in 2005 another parking study was performed by consultants. In 2010, parking fees were changed. In 2011 more parking ideas were piloted. Ruffer said through the concept of moving to a paid system to manage demand permeated.
Meanwhile, the McKay Street garage was falling apart. The city had not been keeping up with the maintenance. The state agreed to fund the rebuilding of it but with a stipulation -- that there be a management plan for parking that will generate the revenue needed to maintain it. In that process, Nelson Nygaard was brought in.
"That group met 14 times, conducted an online survey that over 900 people responded to, held three open houses, and held more than 12 stakeholder interviews," Ruffer said.
The consultant's inventories all of the parking in downtown, determining that less than half of the available public parking sports were not being utilized on a given day. It broke the downtown corridor into segments and monitoring the daily traffic as well as special event traffic. Eventually it came up with a plan to place meters in the most in-demand spots at a higher cost -- 50 cents an hour -- put meters with a lesser cost - 25 cents an hour - in some places like the First Street parking lot or the McKay Street parking lot and to leave timed or free parking in some other areas.
"There was an overarching perception that parking in the downtown was confusing," Ruffer said.
At the time, the city's parking system had been in shambles -- attributed at the time because of years of piecemeal changes to individual lots and streets over many years. The location of various timed spots and permit parking were inconsistent, there was a lack of signage -- or confusing signs -- and a lack of information available to show visitors where to go. There were people reporting they could not find parking and so left the downtown.
The ultimate plan touched on all of those issues and even recommended improvements to various pedestrian walkways and bicycle racks. The determination was essential there is plenty of parking available to meet the demand but it hadn't been spread out enough through the downtown. It called for a system to change parking behavior.
The concept was to lessen the demand on the most used spots such as on-street parking on North Street by encouraging those staying longer in the downtown to park elsewhere. The hope was to create more turnover in front of shops, allowing more and more people to get in and out quickly, and pushing employees or people who would stay longer to side streets.
"The objective was never to charge for all parking but to recognize that parking is an asset and to be managed as such," Ruffer said.
The plan was ultimately approved an implemented - though not followed 100 percent. The city did not make completely free parking on the roof of the McKay Street garage and ultimately developed a fee system that gives a person 30 minutes for free -- but they still have to type in their licenses plate -- and $1 an hour for premier spots and 50 cents an hour on the next tier. But it did implement the majority of the proposal.
City Engineer Ricardo Morales presented data that shows that parking behavior has changed in the last 2 1/2 years with the metering system. Particularly, he looked at the length of time for the various sections which showed a higher percentage of people spending 30 minutes or less in those premier on-street spots and a higher percentage of long-term stays in the lots.
"The system has achieved its goal of the increasing availability of parking," Ruffer said.
Mazzeo, however, suggested that the system is discouraging people from coming downtown at all.
Councilor Melissa Mazzeo questioned whether or not there is more available space because people are avoiding going downtown.
"A lot of these are quick in and outs and it takes them longer to find a kiosk and figure out what they need to do - and God forbid it is glitching," Mazzeo said. "All they want to do is run in and out in five minutes."
White disagrees, saying it is a friendly system and the meters allow for people to make multiple stops in the downtown within that first half hour without having to put new coins in the meter when they move from spot to spot.
"I find out the downtown system to be friendly. While during the workday, I have a 45-minute lunch, it is easier to park near where I am going," White said.
Ramondetta isn't convinced the city needed to create additional demand in the first place. He said the Columbus Avenue garage had enough parking before.
Melville was one of four lots in the downtown that was planned to be for both permits and timed parking -- no meters. And the city kept to that. That lot isn't far from Ramondetta's place of business and the Melville lot still has free parking for up to 90 minutes. Krol said that isn't fair. The Melville lot offers parking for the YMCA, which provides a similar service as Berkshire Nautilus does, Krol said.
Berkshire Nautilus manager Glen McBurney said there is inconsistency throughout the downtown, citing areas on Willis, South, and Seymour that are not metered. He questioned why Melville was designated for 90-minutes whereas Summer Street was metered.
"There is a disparity between the lots," he said.
YMCA's CEO Jessie Rumlow said she wouldn't want meters in that lot, and tried to differentiate the YMCA from Nautilus. Rumlow said the YMCA is dedicated to providing members to people regardless of their ability to pay and adding a fee on top of the membership fees the non-profit tries to keep low will make it harder for low-income families.
"We are serving the entire community," Rumlow said, outlining a number of services from childcare to senior visits to supervised visit that happen at the Y.
Krol suggested expanding the free time allotted by the meters in the lots themselves to 90 minutes. He said the intent had always been to have people park off the main street and walk downtown. Now, he said there is still plenty of parking so increasing to 90 minutes will entice even more to do so. He amended his petition as such to provide the 90 minutes free.
"I have no problem with parking meters but we should urge people to park in the lots more consistently," Krol said.
Editor's note: This story was edited on August 6, 2019 at 10 a.m. to clarify that the recommendation does not entirely remove metered parking from the lot, just extends the free time to 90 minutes.
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