BERLIN — In a case of what several officials call a “good problem” to have, parking scarcity in Berlin went under the lens this month after a proposal to re-locate the town’s farmers market to increase parking was quickly dismissed in a wave of public backlash.
Though the market will be staying put for the time being, worries over parking persist with the town turning to lot sharing as a short-term remedy and the addition of new parking spaces likely in the near future.
Mayor Gee Williams said he and the council want to do everything possible to keep what is currently an inconvenience at peak times from snowballing into a crippling problem.
“We’ve got to make those changes and investments now … we shouldn’t wait for a crisis,” he said.
The first step that Williams wants to take is a town-wide inventory of what parking is currently available downtown. Most importantly, he wants residents to understand that of all of the spaces in place, only a portion are town-owned.
“The town owns very little parking,” Berlin Economic and Community Development Director Michael Day said, estimating the actual number of spaces to be well under 100 downtown.
While there are many more total spaces, Day explained the majority are owned by private businesses and open to the public simply out of courtesy. If parking ever becomes too scarce, Day noted that those same private businesses could restrict their parking to only customers, “any time they want …”
Avoiding such a turn of events is one of the main reasons why Williams is advocating cooperation when it comes to parking.
“I believe greatly in partnerships,” he said.
In lieu of immediately adding new lots, Williams hopes private businesses will be willing to work with the town by opening up their lots whenever their operation is closed to be used as public parking.
“I’d like to see that become the new standard,” he said.
By sharing lot space, current parking would be maximized. However, one problem with relying on that can arise during busy town events or holidays when a business might be open but parking already at capacity. Consequently, there are only a finite number of spaces available in town and even with lot sharing capacity can be reached during peak times.
“At events, yes, there is a problem,” said Day, adding that running out of parking during some events is a “good problem” to have since it confirms popularity.
Williams asserted that he would much rather worry about a lack of parking than a lack of business, which was the case in Berlin for decades.
“We had more parking than we had traffic,” he recalled.
That was the norm for decades and Williams admitted that he didn’t even notice a change until the last few years.
“I could see a growing problem in having adequate parking over the past two summers particularly,” he said.
If the pattern continues, both Williams and Day believe that finding room for new parking will be critical. This will most likely mean one or more new parking lots, which the town would like to keep environmentally friendly.
By using pervious materials, parking can be added to Berlin without increasing flooding or stormwater issues. This, in Williams’ opinion, would be ideal.
“I think that we have to provide different parking options,” he said.
One idea that has been floated around town before is the idea of a parking garage.
Berlin wouldn’t have any trouble with a garage from a zoning standpoint, according to Director of Planning and Zoning Chuck Ward.
“I certainly think that a parking garage could work pretty much anywhere,” he said.
If placed downtown, a garage would need to conform to Berlin’s historical guidelines. However, this would be an easy fix through simple façade work, noted Ward. While a garage would allow for a vast amount of parking in a small area, Ward, Williams and Day all remarked on how extraordinarily expense such a project would be and thus it isn’t likely to happen any time soon.
The idea of paying for new lots through a section of the parking code that would have new businesses pay into a “parking fund” if they can’t provide any additional spaces has been discussed. The code has been on the books since 1977 but has rarely if ever been enforced and definitely not recently. It received attention this week during the debate over the farmers market.
Williams is patently against instituting such a fee since he views it as anti-business.
“I’m not a big fan of that … I think the 20th century has been ‘fee’d’ to death,” he said.
By not making new businesses responsible for paying into a parking fund, Williams pointed out that Berlin comes across as more attractive to entrepreneurs. That, in turn, brings more growth and money into the town to the point where any funding lost is more than made up for in economic development, at least in his opinion.
“We make an investment in business,” said Williams.