Jeb Wallace-Brodeur / Staff Photo Sandy Spargo, of Barre, feeds a meter before shopping at Next Chapter Bookstore in downtown Barre on Thursday.
BARRE — As City Place continues to fill up, concerns about parking-related decisions city officials made to accommodate the multimillion-dollar project have started to overflow.
The second-guessing was in full force this week when more than two dozen downtown merchants and property owners attended a Wednesday night forum specifically called to answer questions about a perceived parking problem.
During a sometimes testy session that spanned more than 90 minutes, city officials endured criticism involving decisions to dedicate more than 200 public parking spaces at discounted prices to private developers of City Place and the Blanchard Block.
Mayor Thomas Lauzon, who called the meeting and did much of the talking, was both apologetic and unapologetic at the same time. He repeatedly apologized for how people felt about the City Council’s decisions and any inconvenience they might create. However, he stood firmly behind those decisions.
Lauzon’s position did little to satisfy those who questioned the fairness and, in at least one case, the legality of parking arrangements that one described as a slap in the face to longtime merchants and another said treated them like second-class citizens whose parking needs were somehow less important than the new developers on the block.
Lauzon said he didn’t believe those were fair characterizations, prompting push-back from some in the audience.
Brian LaCount, owner of BK’s Computing, was one of them.
LaCount said he was puzzled by the process that led the council to guarantee “preferential parking” to City Place developer DEW Properties LLC and later to the local partnership that tackled redevelopment of the Blanchard Block. Both developers are being charged $60 a space less than the $180 everyone else in the city is required to pay for parking permits on an annual basis.
“You say you don’t feel like anyone was slapped in the face? I am one,” LaCount said, kicking off a brief back-and-forth with Lauzon, who defended the council’s decisions to dedicate 110 parking spaces for use by City Place tenants and up to an additional 100 spaces for use by the Blanchard Block.
“Those were the negotiations,” Lauzon started to explain before being interrupted by LaCount and then quickly cutting him off.
“Can I just finish?” a clearly irritated Lauzon asked.
“Go right ahead because you’re going to anyway,” LaCount grumbled.
“Those were the terms,” Lauzon said, picking up where he left off. “To get the state Agency of Education here, to get (City Place) built. We didn’t offer (DEW) any parking spaces out of the box. That was what was required.”
Lauzon, who acknowledged at the outset of the meeting that he has contracts to provide private parking for both projects on property he owns on Metro Way, said the council rightly focused on the greater good associated with growing the city’s grand list and bringing jobs downtown.
“(DEW) wanted those dedicated parking spaces, and without them they weren’t going to build the building, the Agency of Education wasn’t going to come here, those other tenants weren’t going to come here and our downtown merchants weren’t going to have potentially 350 (new) customers,” he said.
LaCount wasn’t sold.
“You’ll have plenty of parking when the businesses are no longer there, because they won’t be able to survive,” he said.
Most weren’t that openly critical, and none echoed LaCount’s prediction of doom. However, many expressed concern over what they perceived as a double standard and a parking shortage that hasn’t yet materialized.
However, while City Place isn’t yet operating at full capacity, its effects are already being felt by those who have historically parked along Merchants Row and Enterprise Alley, because 82 of those spaces are now off limits.
That, some said, has made finding permit parking spots more challenging and led to time-consuming walks.
Local lawyer and former City Council member Jon Valsangiacomo said that doesn’t seem quite fair, suggesting that, at a minimum, the city consider charging everyone the same rate for parking permits.
DEW is paying $120 per space “to have prime parking,” he said, “and we’re paying more to lose our parking.”
Another lawyer, Gary McQuesten, described the 10-year renewable parking leases with City Place and the Blanchard Block as “unfair and discriminatory” and questioned the legality of dedicating public parking spaces for the exclusive use of a private entity.
“I understand the good intentions behind it, but I’m not so certain that it’s necessarily lawful,” he said. “You have to use public property for municipal purposes and not for private (uses).”
Several suggested more City Place parking should be at the Barre Municipal Auditorium on Seminary Hill and with workers shuttled to North Main Street by bus.
Although Lauzon said he would explore that possibility with DEW, company representatives have indicated the 28 spaces the city has already penciled in for them at the auditorium are unacceptable and do not meet the terms of their agreement. The company’s expectation is those spaces, like the other 82, be located in close proximity to City Place.
City Manager Steve Mackenzie spoke briefly and warned against knee-jerk solutions to a problem that has yet to be fully defined.
A committee has been conducting regular surveys to gauge the availability of parking downtown at various times of day, and that 90-day observation period will continue through June, Mackenzie said, noting the city is pursuing plans that would add surface parking downtown over the next several months.
Using voter-approved “tax increment financing” money, the city has acquired and will soon demolish a duplex on Campbell Place to expand an existing parking lot behind Northfield Savings Bank, according to Mackenzie, who said the city is acquiring and demolishing Ormsby’s Computer Store on Keith Avenue to create another city-owned lot.
Meanwhile, Mackenzie said the city is pursuing grants that would finance the redevelopment and cleanup of a partly contaminated section of Enterprise Alley between Depot Square and Granite Street. That project, he said, will also create additional parking.
However, Mackenzie predicted there will likely be at least some inconvenience over the next several months as City Place and the Blanchard Block fill up.
“For the next six to 15 months parking is probably going to be at a premium, and it will probably be tight,” he said, welcoming suggestions like one calling for the city to abandon a confusing mix of meters that charge motorists different rates to park.
Several in attendance noted that downtown shoppers had taken to parking in metered spaces that can be used by those with parking permits because they could pay a quarter, instead of 50 cents, to park for an hour.
Sue Higby, executive director of Studio Place Arts, said eliminating that variable would help the city conduct more meaningful parking surveys during the observation period, while at the same time be less confusing to those who frequent downtown Barre.
While Mackenzie was preaching patience, Lauzon vowed the city would move swiftly to develop new parking on Campbell Place and Keith Avenue and, he hoped, would be permitted to pursue the expedited redevelopment of a recently acquired parcel on Enterprise Alley.
“I think by the end of August we can pick up 50 to 75 spaces,” he said.
With the Blanchard Block currently using only 21 of the 100 public parking spaces it has been promised, Lauzon said he has approached the building’s owners and asked them to consider using the parking he has agreed to develop for them on Metro Way before claiming any more city spaces on Merchants Row.
The lot proposed by Lauzon would displace the Barre Community Garden, which he has permitted to use his property rent-free since its inception.
According to Lauzon, the city is exploring other alternatives, including the possibility of making Jefferson Street one-way in order to allow “nose-in” parking in front of the Elks Lodge. Lauzon said after the meeting that “nose-in” parking could also create some extra spaces if it were implemented on both sides of Depot Square.
“We are going to continue to look for ways to make parking more efficient,” he said.
Although merchants were understandably concerned, Lauzon challenged any of them to have made a different decision when faced with what he viewed as unprecedented opportunities to enhance the city’s central business district.
“From my point of view it is going to be a lot easier for us to fix the parking program and to provide more parking for our downtown than it ever was to get City Place and the Blanchard Block to happen,” he said.
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