Downtown Parking Needs More Enforcement and Awareness, Better Layout
A handful of Melrose business owners and residents gathered at Memorial Hall on Thursday night to hear the initial results of the city's study of parking downtown.
Find yourself circling the Dill's Court lot behind CVS and racing to beat out someone else for an elusive parking spot? Well, you shouldn't: There are plenty of parking spaces available in Melrose, even mid-day—people just don't know about them. Or use them.
That's the story told by the numbers presented at Thursday night's Parking Workshop held in the GAR Room at Memorial Hall, where officials from the city's Office of Planning and Community Development and representatives from consulting firm Nelson\Nygaard laid out the results of the city's recent study and survey regarding parking in downtown Melrose.
If there are so many parking spaces available midday, where are they?
According to the numbers compiled during the study, they're mainly at the Larrabee Place lot behind the VFW Prince Post and in the City Hall parking lot. There's also some parking available at the Friend's Lot behind Mexico Lindo, but the Fields Court lot behind Starbucks is packed all day. Lots further away from downtown, but still within walking distance—such as on Berwick Street and the Livermore lot next to Caruso's—almost always have spaces available.
The study utilized city employees and volunteers to count cars in lots every two hours on a Thursday and a Saturday for a 12-hour period. According to that count, on Thursday, congestion peaked at 11 a.m.—with similar numbers around 1 p.m.—when there were 844 cars parked throughout the downtown public lots and on the street, and 431 spaces available, according to Michael Alba of Nelson\Nygaard.
Excluding private parking spaces and some of the further away public lots, such as the Livermore lot and Berwick Street, there were 249 vacant spaces at that peak time—129 on street and 120 off street.
Reconfiguring Dill's Court parking lot could mean more spaces, less chaos
There were also spaces available in Dill's Court, the largest municipal lot after City Hall, but Alba said poor layout makes that lot feel chaotic and more full than it actually is, as cars circle around and around the lot as drivers try to spot an open parking space.
"It looks like a series of different parking lots that have been mashed together," he said.
To address that problem, Alba said by reconfiguring the parking lot only by painting new lines on the ground, Dill's Court's capacity could increase from the current 136 formally designated parking spaces up to 157 spaces, while eliminating the current chaos.
It would also enable to the city to create a plaza areas with tree plantings and safe pedestrian walkways on the outer edges of the lot abutting the buildings on Main Street and Myrtle Street, a concept that elicited approval from the handful of residents and business owners in attendance.
Another recommendation is to increase the time limit from two hours to three hours in public lots, to accomodate more people who are visiting shops for services such as hair or nail appointments, or perhaps visiting one of the city's restaurants. Alba added that the Main Street parking "seems to be working pretty effectively" and would not change.
More efficient use of underutilized lots
The city also must do a better job of advertising, in a way, the other underutilized lots, especially those close to downtown such as the Larrabee lot and the City Hall lot, Alba said.
For instance, a postcard available online and in hard copies could show a simple diagram of downtown parking and what's available and where, while more 'P' signs placed throughout downtown could direct people to the access points of the various lots. A map or kiosk could also be placed downtown.
Also, the series of alleys that run from the lots out to Main Street provide good access, Alba said, but those lots can seem remote and removed from downtown. Making those alleys more attractive could also draw more people to those lots, he continued, showing drawings—provided by the son of Steve Trulli, owner of Whittemore Hardware—of alleys with improved lighting, brick walkways, landscaping and wrought iron gateways.
One recommendation that met some resistence was the idea of creating a two-tiered parking permit system in Melrose. Currently, a permit can be purchased for $250 annually that allows unlimited parking in off street lots; residents can also purchase an $80 permit for overnight parking, with no more than 300 permits issued by the city at any one time.
To drive more people—including Melrose business employees who park directly next to their place of work—to park in the more remote, underutilized lots, such as behind City Hall, Berwick Street and the Livermore lot, the city could introduce a $5 per month permit ($60 annually). That permit, paid for monthly, would allow unlimited parking only in certain designated spaces away from directly abutting the downtown business buildings, and most of those spaces being located in the underutilized lots.
"We thought we would tweak that system and provide a very cheap, alternative permit that attracts people to the more remote portions of the parking lots, away from right against building, and even attracting them to peripheral lots," Alba said.
Then, the city would increase the cost of the current $250 permit to $50 per month ($600 annually) and limit the number of permits issued at any one time to 75.
Enforcement key to making permit system work
Michael White, owner of Melrose Army & Navy Store, cast doubt on the permit recommendation, saying he has worked in Melrose for 40 years and seen how employees will shuffle their cars around during the day to avoid tickets.
"I’ve never really seen an effective permit program that’s been an incentive for people to park farther way from their businesses," White said.
Jason Schrieber, principal at Nelson\Nygaard, said the incentive must be the option of a cheap parking permit—the $5 per month option—versus getting a $15 parking ticket.
"Clearly enforcement is a big part of the solution," Schrieber said. "I think it’s something the city has to think seriously about, because the enforcement business is expensive. The (recommended) three-hour time limit makes it easier because the cycle drops dramatically and it’s pretty easy to figure out anyone who stays longer than that."
He reiterated that according to the data collected, Melrose has "plenty of spaces" during the peak hours during the week.
"A lot of the problems have to do with location," Schrieber said. "You can go build a 1,000 space parking garage and it’s not going to be remotely filled up and not matter if people want to park next to front doors. The only way to motivate that kind of a change is enforce it or price people’s habit."
Anne Clark and Mary Doyle, residents of the Berwick Street area, raised their concerns about overnight parking for residents in the Berwick lot. Schrieber said that problem is a separate concern from the downtown parking addressed through the study, but said that residents face a "supply problem" and that possible solutions could include making more on street parking in that area resident-only or, as Doyle suggested, possibly limiting the number of overnight parking permits per household.
A humorous moment came when Ellen Katz of the Melrose Energy Commission (MEC) arrived to offer the MEC's suggestions: The installation of electric vehicle charging stations and the installation of bicycle racks.
"Sold!" Schrieber quickly declared, punctuating his statement with a Rene Rancourt-style fist pump.
Melrose City Planner Denise Gaffey said that all are still welcome to take the city's online parking survey and provide additional feedback as final recommendations are developed.