GREENFIELD — With an ambitious revitalization plan that envisions busy sidewalks and thriving storefronts, downtown advocates are just starting to confront one of the issues that has confounded city leaders for years:
Is there enough parking downtown?
The answer from the people who have actually counted the parking spaces is a resounding “yes.” But they admit they are battling a perception problem they can’t quite explain.
“The perception of limited parking is hard to understand, but it seems that every downtown experiences the phenomenon,” said city planning director Joanie Fitzwater.
Added Dave Scott, executive director of the Hancock County Visitors Bureau, whose offices are in the heart of downtown: “There’s always been the perception there is no downtown parking, but I’m just not sure it’s accurate.”
The success of the revitalization strategy may well depend in part on debunking the perceptions. After all, shops and other businesses can’t thrive if customers think it’ll be a hassle to get there.
To the doubters, the numbers may sound surprising: According to city records, there are 437 parking spaces in 10 public parking lots and 700 on-street parking spaces within the downtown redevelopment area, generally bounded by Osage and Grant streets and Riley Avenue and Spring Street.
Add in an additional 650 known private parking places, and the city’s maps indicate the existence of more than 1,700 places to park.
“There’s plenty of parking; you might just have to walk a little bit,” said Shelley Swift, Greenfield Main Street Inc. program manager.
Parking has expanded in recent years.
In 2009 and 2010, former Mayor Brad DeReamer boosted public parking by paving a small parcel along Main Street and inking agreements with Lincoln Square Pancake House and Greenfield Christian Church to allow the city partial use of their lots, but the issue centers more on behaviors than places to park a car.
“We don’t want to walk,” Scott said. “How many times do we drive around the parking lot at Wal-Mart 150 times to get a spot in the first two rows?”
Swift and city planners are quick to point to a graphic used by consultants to Greenfield’s revitalization plan that overlays Wal-Mart and its 200-space-plus parking lot over downtown: It covers much of the redevelopment area.
Steve McCleerey of McCleerey’s Sporting Goods, a downtown retail anchor for decades, understands the argument and agrees there are plenty of places to park downtown.
“We’ve never had an issue,” said McCleerey, whose store is in the first block of South State Street. “There’s a big city lot by the fire station (on South Street, about a block away), and it’s a shorter walk (to here) than from the edge of the Wal-Mart lot.”
Swift said she conducted an unscientific experiment by covering the distance from the public lot just south of the courthouse annex to the corner of State and Main streets. At a brisk pace, it took about three minutes, she said.
With a similarly sized lot in front of neighboring Home Depot, another 216 spaces at soon-to-open Gander Mountain and a proposal for a Kohl’s department store with 269 spots on the books, downtown advocates say there’s not much difference between walking the parking lots on the State Street commercial corridor and walking downtown.
A contingent of downtown business owners and shoppers tend to agree that parking is not a problem most of the time.
“My customers never have complained to me,” said Andree’s Florist owner Paul Maslek.
Maslek’s storefront sits at the corner of Main Street and American Legion Place with on-street parking to the north and a surface lot directly across the street.
“As far as I’m concerned, it’s not a problem,” he said.
Up the street to the west, at the corner of State and Main streets, Posh Salon & Spa, too, has nearby public lots and on-street parking.
“Our customers can pretty much find parking,” said stylist Leah Fikani.
Shrugging against an unseasonably cool and damp afternoon earlier this week, Debbie Williams was heading to her car in a city lot on Main Street.
“I don’t come down here all that much, but when I do, I’ve never had a problem,” Williams said.
The response, however, is mixed depending upon who is asked.
As in most things relating to business and real estate, location matters, and where a person’s business is drives the opinion.
“Parking downtown has always been an issue,” said Vicky Casey, who works at National Road Insurance on American Legion Place east of the courthouse.
National Road Insurance is nestled in the downtown square. Casey said a heavy day at the courthouse across the street will tie up available parking early with little relief for local merchants or their customers throughout the day.
“We had a territory sales rep come in the other day, and he had to park over by the fire station (off South Street), and he commented that parking must be at a premium,” she said. “It seems like the more that’s provided, the more we need.”
Next door at The Harbour, chef Robin Flora said the lack of nearby parking has done nothing less than hammer her daytime business.
“I have to pull my business in the evening to stay open during the day,” Flora said. “If you only have a half-hour to eat, you don’t have time to walk that far. That’s why we have no customers at lunch.”
Ironically, more surface parking lots are not necessarily the answer, Fitzwater maintains.
“Surface parking lots are not inviting, nor are they providing us with a great return on investment,” Fitzwater wrote in an email. “Buildings and businesses should be in those empty spaces along the downtown streets.”
At some point in the future, the city might have to consider a downtown parking garage as new business and development simply overwhelm current parking berths, but until then, planners will continue to work toward building a “cultural critical mass” to draw people to downtown and offer alternative avenues to the area with bike and trail systems, she said.
However, the parking conundrum is driven as much by where you are downtown as what you are doing.
“What are you going to tell that gentleman?” asked Lincoln Square Pancake House partner and general manager Costas Stylianou as one of his customers smiled and made his way to the door with the aid of a walker.
With its own private lot just outside the entrance, Lincoln Square is not as affected by perceptions about parking.
Still, as Stylianou points out, what might be a leisurely stroll or easy walk for some might be an outright impediment for others who might have to cross busy streets to get to their destination – and that’s not always good for business.
With the issue being fed by legitimate competing interests – special circumstances for some downtown shoppers, sporadically active pockets fueling a parking crunch and other sections of town enjoying a bonanza – downtown supporters acknowledge a certain amount of cooperation will have to be in play.
“Can you ever have enough parking where everyone gets the spot they want?” Scott asked. “Probably not.”
But the issue, downtown supporters say, is not insurmountable.
“If we all just work together and help thy neighbor, we’ll be fine,” Swift said.