Until now, I’ve resisted the urge to jump into the discussion about the appeal to the Vermont Superior Court on the proposed Montpelier parking garage. But I’ve decided to speak out now, as costs to our citizens rise and the appellants make unsupportable demands.
What more can I add to the conversation? I’m an engaged citizen, member of several volunteer city committees, and informed about the current zoning ordinance because I helped to write it. Furthermore, as an architect, I followed the concept and development of the garage from the city’s first iterations, and attended almost all of the City Council and informational hearings on the project since last August. At those meetings, I raised concerns, including setbacks from the bank and architectural standards; the design was modified to accommodate changes that actually exceeded what was required. The time to raise questions was during the review process, as many did.
I appreciate that the appellants are concerned — our neighbors. However, their questions have been asked and answered by City Manager Bill Fraser (Times Argus April 17) and in a detailed half-page response by Planning Director Michael Miller (April 30). The bond vote issue raised by the appeal in the May 24 Times Argus is truly over the top: Never in my 40 years as an architect have I seen architect’s fees listed as a separate line item on a bond vote — they are part of the overall project cost, just like each line of the bid. The cost that the voters approved hasn’t changed.
The appellants have not replied publicly, but four of them did outline the questions of their appeal in a Times Argus commentary (April 19). My responses to their issues: The project as zoned in district UC-1 is a Permitted Use, negating both their first and second questions. (Even if they mistakenly consulted the previous ordinance, commercial parking was a Permitted Use in the CB-1 district). Regarding street frontage (question #3), the building will be built on an access easement connecting State and Taylor Streets, with 36 feet of frontage. Easements like this exist throughout Montpelier. Finally, other ordinance requirements they mentioned were met, such as pedestrian access (provided from both State and Taylor), transportation (next to the Transit Center) and landscaping (included, with added “green walls” to soften the structure).
Sadly, I think that the appellants aren’t addressing the “elephant in the room:” that they (and others) don’t want to see the city build a parking garage. I suggest that this group is wrapped up in a single-minded stance: No parking garage. Surely, that’s not something for a city with a net-zero target that promotes reducing single cars, right?
Well, I couldn’t disagree more. Personally and professionally, I’ve worked for years toward a zero-car goal, as many of us have. But we need ways to transition to that future, and one of those ways is to eliminate on-street parking that turns our walkable city into a downtown parking lot. The parking garage offers us a means to an end: reducing on-grade lots and allowing more bike lanes, as promoted by the Sustainable Montpelier Design Competition. It gives a needed boost to our merchants, addressing their customer parking issues.
Most buildings change tenants over time. For now, the garage would be a warehouse for cars, allowing residents and visitors access to the downtown and connecting to our transit center. Later, as we wean ourselves away from single-occupancy vehicles, it could become a hub for shared vehicles, centrally located downtown with access to the entire city. If all vehicles disappear, it could be repurposed for a myriad of new uses, including public recreation.
I urge those who oppose the idea of a parking garage to look beyond a label. Furthermore, we must respond to our hard-working downtown merchants who have clamored for better downtown parking. Please don’t be consumed by a moral stance that ignores the necessity for transformation to a car-free future.
Don’t block our move toward a more sustainable city; this is our chance to take a first step.
Barbara Conrey lives in Montpelier.