AUGUSTA — A report on parking in downtown Augusta recommends charging by the hour for parking on Water Street to free up prime spots for shoppers, diners and other short-term parkers.

The report’s aim is to encourage longer-term parkers, including downtown workers and residents, to park in several off-street parking lots where spaces often go unused.

Overall, the study found there is adequate parking downtown, both now and to accommodate projected growth there. But some of it, such as on-street parking on Water Street, is over-utilized and fills up (or at least appears to passersby to be full) while other parking spaces in off-street lots in and around downtown go unused.

The study recommendations include charging drivers something like $1 an hour through a metered system, to park in the most sought-after spots on Water Street in the heart of the downtown. The study also suggests making it free to park in off-street lots that require, in most cases, a short walk to get to downtown.

Now, parking on Water Street is free but Augusta Parking District permits, which cost $70 for three months, are required to park in much of the off-street lots.

That’s pretty much the opposite of how it should be, the report finds.

“The current uneven demand for parking in downtown Augusta is due to an incentive structure that undermines the goal of providing sufficient convenient parking for transient retail customers,” the 29-page report states. “The highest concentration of retail units downtown is immediately adjacent to 69 parking spaces along Water and Oak streets between Bridge Street and the foot of Rines’ Hill. However those spaces are free to drivers, while most of the remaining spaces downtown are further from businesses and require a costly permit to use.”

The $17,675 study was conducted last year by Desman Design Management, a national firm specializing in parking consulting, and paid for by the city. City councilors had studying parking downtown as one of their previous goals. Augusta Downtown Alliance and Augusta Parking District officials had also expressed interest in a parking study being done.

The report notes long-term parkers would not be likely to park in one of the metered spots because the cost would eventually add up to a substantial expense. But a driver with a specific destination in mind who is only going to be downtown for a relatively short time, such as someone shopping or going out to eat or having an appointment downtown, would be more willing to pay to park since the expense, for a couple of hours, wouldn’t be that much.

Tobias Parkhurst, a downtown developer, business co-owner including Cushnoc Brewing restaurant and bar, and chairman of the Augusta Parking District, acknowledges that the initial reaction of some people to a recommendation to charge for Water Street parking to bring more customers downtown may be that it doesn’t make much sense.

But he said if people look further into the idea, and see that while it would charge for downtown on street parking that’s now free, it would also make all other parking downtown free, they’ll see it makes sense. Parkhurst said he’s almost embarrassed by how obvious the recommendations now appear.

“When you say you’re taking 900 spots and making them free, and taking 100 spots and making them pay, that makes more sense,” Parkhurst said Friday. “As a merchant I have to ask myself, ‘Am I more comfortable with people who are not customers, parking on Water Street all day for free, and not spending any money with merchants, or more comfortable with my customers paying 50 cents or a dollar an hour, and see an abundance of parking downtown?'”

The study confirmed Augusta has 1,090 striped parking spaces within the area of the study, 840, or 77%, of which are located in off-street facilities, with the other 250, or 23%, of spaces on-street parking. Of those spaces, 59% are designated spots for Augusta Parking District permit-holders, 4% are reserved for specific users such as people with a disability, and 37% open to the general public without a permit.

Cars are parked along Water Street in downtown Augusta on Friday. A new study of downtown parking recommends that Water Street parking be charged by the hour. Kennebec Journal photo by Joe Phelan Buy this Photo

The study focused on the downtown area on the west side of the Kennebec River, roughly between Memorial Bridge and Bond Street. It included 27 off-street parking lots of various sizes, including parking along railroad beds, the Dickman Street parking garage, parking on Front Street along the Kennebec River, and the Maine State Housing Authority lot.

Renee Adams, owner of Dreams Bridal Boutique and Tuxedo Center at 190 Water St., roughly in the middle of downtown, said she’s not in favor of charging for parking on Water Street. But Adams also said she didn’t think her customers, who generally spend at most three hours at her shop, would mind having to pay to park on the street.

She said she doesn’t park on Water Street when she’s at the store and she and other merchants generally try to keep people who aren’t customers off Water Street.

She said sometimes parking on Water Street does fill up and parking is an issue downtown.

Matt Nazar, development director for the city, said following the recommendations of the report would require action by the Augusta City Council and Augusta Parking District, a quasi-municipal organization chartered by the state Legislature to oversee parking in the downtown area. He said the recommendations appear to make a lot of sense.

“Right now we have a system that’s effectively backwards, where you’re charging people to walk from further away and having free parking where people want to park,” he said. “That’s the situation we find ourselves in right now. We have plenty of supply. The challenge the city faces now is those Water Street spots are used almost 100% during certain parts of the day, so it’s figuring out how to manage those high value spaces to figure out how they can best be utilized.”

While the city once had parking meters downtown, they were removed, when and why, Nazar said, isn’t clear. Nazar said if the city decides to charge for parking on Water Street it would likely take a higher-technology route rather than reinstall traditional coin-fed parking meters, such as kiosks and/or a system where parkers could pay via an app on their phone.

The report stated that the current system of requiring people who park downtown long term, such as residents of the many apartments on the upper floors of buildings, to pay for costly parking permits discourages people from living downtown because of that extra cost. Free long term parking, it added, would decrease the cost and encourage more people to live there.

“Under our system right now, we are unjustly punishing those whom have invested the most in our downtown, our residents and merchants, by charging them for permits to park when we have off street parking that could be utilized as free, non-permitted parking for all,” said Michael Hall, a board member of the Augusta Parking District. “The current system is confusing to visitors and customers alike, and is not serving or satisfying the needs for a growing downtown.”

Hall is also executive director of the Augusta Downtown Alliance, which advocates for downtown merchants, but stressed that he was not speaking in that role regarding parking downtown because the board of the alliance has not yet taken a position on the report’s findings.

The study found occupancy of all downtown parking spots, on a weekday, was 40%, and peaked at 49% at noon.

The study also recommends adding loading zones on Water Street, zones which it notes could be restricted to commercial vehicles for part of the day but open to all parking during the rest of the day. It also encourages the use of alternative modes of transportation, and, if officials determine more parking is needed, developing it in several areas that could easily accommodate more parking. That should be explored prior to expanding the city’s parking garage or building another parking structure, the study says, including the west side of Water Street adjacent to Market Square and the south side of Bridge Street between the Black and Tan restaurant and South Parish Church.

The data collected about parking utilization in the study was gathered during a daylong effort to monitor usage, on Friday, Aug. 16, 2019, a weekday chosen, the study states, to capture parking demand conditions when the weather was “pleasant enough to attract customers to downtown.” Data was gathered to gauge weekend usage on Saturday, Aug. 17, 2019, both prior to the Aug. 19, 2019, conversion of the middle section of Water Street from the previous one-way to the current two-way traffic flow.


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