Great Barrington — Is downtown Great Barrington in the midst of a parking crisis? Or are parking problems a figment of the complainers’ imaginations?
As is the case with many issues, the answer depends on whom you talk to, as Edge interviews with dozens of observers attest. The general consensus among the denizens of downtown is that more parking is always better than less but that the perceived shortage might be more rooted more in not knowing where to look than anything else.
For visitors or even locals who are baffled when confronted with the urgency of where to put your vehicle, the town government has published a nifty parking guide on its website. It’s got a map with a legend and a guide explaining the ins-and-outs of downtown and reassuring would-be patrons that “nothing is more than a 5-minute walk.”
“Park once, walk everywhere!” readers are urged. In other words, you might not find a spot right in front of where you want to start your downtown excursion. But in any event, you won’t have to walk far. Besides, you might even get some exercise.
But the topic of parking won’t go away — in part because virtually everyone has to deal with it. Parking has become a minor obsession of writer Mickey Friedman, a downtown resident who recently moved to Castle Street and has written a pair of columns over the last few months published in Red Crow News.
Friedman has emphasized the problem downtown residents have, as opposed to those who come to town to do business. To Friedman’s dismay, unlimited parking has virtually disappeared from downtown. The only lot with unlimited parking is at the top of Railroad Street, next to where Martin’s restaurant used to be. There is also unlimited parking some of the side streets, including Dresser, Pleasant and Church streets. Most other places limit parking to two or four hours.
“We’re becoming a town more attuned to customers, to those from there with money to spend, than residents who struggle to pay rent, mortgages and taxes,” Friedman said. “A simple sticker exempting downtown dwellers from tickets would solve this.”
“Store owners make money from people who come to town,” countered activist and Monument Valley Road resident Karen Smith. “If they had to depend on people who live here, they would all close up shop.”
Smith and others are convinced the problem affects visitors as well. And that traffic on Main Street has exacerbated the problem.
Of the parking problem, Smith said, “It’s a nightmare and the problem has gotten worse.” Smith is particularly irked that landlords in the downtown business district don’t have to provide parking for their tenants.
Like Smith, downtown landlord Richard Stanley has sat on a couple of town-sanctioned parking committees in the last 10 years or so. He had a plan to put a parking lot at the old railroad station in back of town hall, but the property is in private hands and so a deal could not be worked out.
Stanley owns the Triplex Cinema and the Barrington House, a large Main Street building that contains apartments and retail establishments such as Baba Louie’s, GB Eats and Robin’s Candy. He also developed Copper Beach, a condominium complex near Fairview Hospital.
“I think the problem is somewhat exaggerated,” Stanley said of parking. “Not one of my retail tenants in 30 years has said, ‘I can’t survive without more parking.’ If that was an issue, I’d be leading the charge.”
When Stanley built the 500-seat Triplex some 25 years ago, “people thought it would be the end of the world,” he said, but it’s rare that he fields a complaint from a customer about not finding a parking space.
Stanley and several others interviewed for this story are convinced that a major problem is that visitors do not know where the spots are, or they need to readjust their expectations and not try to park right in front of the location they’re visiting.
In addition to the two-hour on-street parking on Main, Railroad, Castle and Bridge streets, visitors can park in the lot behind Town Hall adjacent to the old firehouse. And there is also some two-hour parking on Elm and Bridge streets. Unlimited on-street parking is available not only on Dresser, Pleasant and Church streets, but on Elm Court and Rosseter Street as well.
One complaint from longtime downtown observers is that otherwise open spots during the day are often taken by merchants and employees — a practice condemned by just about everyone interviewed for this article.
“Basically I see the parking problem in Great Barrington as merchants and their employees parking on the street all the time,” said Steve Carlotta, who owns the Snap Shop, a camera store on Railroad Street.
Carlotta has owned the Snap Shop since 1972 and so is the dean of downtown merchants.
“They feel they are entitled,” Carlotta said of the merchants and their employees who park in front of their stores. “So many of these people I see doing it are gone in a couple of years anyway. They don’t understand what it takes to get customers to come. If they don’t understand that, there’s probably other things they don’t understand.”
Across Railroad Street, Chef’s Shop owner Rob Navarino echoed Carlotta’s sentiments about merchants and employees who park close to their own shops, a practice he labeled “senselessly inconsiderate.”
“In my building, I have a clause in the leases that prohibits tenants from parking their own cars or allowing their employees to park on Railroad and Main streets,” Navarino said.
Navarino says while there are plenty of spots available on Railroad Street throughout the year on the weekdays and weekend mornings, “the perception among the public is that parking is impossible.”
“We lose business every day because of this perception, which is very frustrating,” Navarino said.
Robin Helfand, who owns Robin’s Candy, told The Edge, “We actually have quite a few spots in town if you know where to look.” Like many others interviewed for this article, she suggested better signage, not only to help visitors find those spots, but to advise them generally about how parking-friendly the town can be, despite the fact that several spots were lost because of crosswalk bump-outs and other alterations that resulted from the Main Street reconstruction process two years ago.
Helfand is in favor of relaxing the time limits on some streets and lots during the day in order to “to accommodate a visitor who comes to spend the better part of a day eating, shopping and attending the theater.”
In addition, both she and Navarino favor the construction of another municipal parking lot and perhaps a revival of the parking committee.
“I would not mind seeing a parking lot a distance away from Main Street,” said Housatonic resident Michelle Loubert, who visits downtown several times a week. “I, for one, often park behind St. Peter’s Church and walk the short distance to the Main Street. This is the case in other communities.”
“We walked the street literally counting spaces,” Andrus said. “We came to conclusion that it’s not necessarily a problem but it’s getting people to the right spots.”
Andrus said the town’s decision to change the time limit at top of Castle Street from unlimited to four hours has put a strain on Railroad Street, causing downtown residents to park at the top of Railroad Street.
“So now you have all these people trying to park in 40 spots,” said Andrus, whose own office is on Railroad Street.
Andrus is not averse to the M-word — metered parking. Navarino agreed, adding that meters would “discourage employees and other downtown residents from taking up the spaces during business hours.”
Others such as Great Barrington resident and local historian Gary Leveille are dead set against meters: “Pittsfield did it and I think it was a big mistake on many levels. A great way to piss people off. Downtown should be welcoming.”
Helfand agreed, arguing that a metered system “deters visitors, has them constantly checking their watches and cutting short their time in town. I would love to see stiff penalties — perhaps a boot — for repeat employee/merchant offenders who park in front of their shops every day all day.”
Loubert thinks “it is premature to start talking about meters which would detract, in my opinion, from our ‘town’ feel.”
The only Berkshire County municipality that uses metered parking extensively is Pittsfield, where last year the city installed 45 solar-powered multi-space meters throughout designated areas downtown. The so-called “pay-by-plate” machines use license-plate recognition technology, and they accept coins, credit cards and there is even a smartphone app. The town of Adams also has meters, albeit the old-fashioned variety that only take coins.
Frank Anello, Pittsfield’s parking superintendent, said after a period of almost 20 years with time-limited parking, the public seems to have mixed feelings about the new automated meters, which were activated in January.
The cost of purchasing and installing the 45 meters was $370,000, which Anello thinks can be recouped in three years. The first nine months of the program have generated more than $100,000 in revenues. The program has been successful enough that the city is buying five more meters to bring the total to 50.
“We picked these machines because we like the sturdiness and the ease of repair,” Anello said in an interview.
The only real problem with the machines so far has been communications errors. The meters have to be connected to the Internet. The city has a contract with AT&T to use cellular data. Data and credit card collection fees amount to about $2,200 a month, he said, but sometimes the data connections are interrupted.
“Sometimes it drops out for 20 minutes or half an hour,” Anello explained.
Anello said the reaction has been mixed. Some are happy with the ease of use the machines allow. Others are worried about potential abuse and the “Big Brother” aspect of having a machine monitor your vehicle and take photos of your license plate. Others complain about having to pay anything at all, though as Anello was quick to point out, the city’s handy parking map clearly illustrates that there is still plenty of free parking in downtown Pittsfield.
Back in South County, businessman Erik Bruun takes the same view as Anello about availability of parking in Great Barrington.
“Anyone who’s willing to walk 100 yards can find a spot in pretty much any season,” said Bruun, who owns SoCo, the handcrafted ice cream shop on Railroad Street.
Even though it can be an inconvenience to walk the extra distance, Bruun insists that, “A lot of people looking for parking is a good sign. It’s a good problem to have.” He suggested better signage, among other things.
Great Barrington businessman Bobby Houston suggested diagonal parking on Main Street, as is done in Stockbridge and portions of downtown Lee.
“It achieves traffic-calming, twice the capacity, and much more friendly,” Houston said.
But of course that would narrow the width of Main Street. Some are convinced that one reason parking seems scarcer than in the past is that the Main Street reconstruction added another downtown traffic light — at Main and Elm Street.
Before the project, it was rare to see southbound traffic backed up all the way to the Brown Bridge or the fire station. Now it is a common sight, mostly mid-to-late afternoon. And it seems that the traffic lights, especially the one at Domaney’s, are often out of synch.
“That just drives me out of my mind,” said Smith.
“I do think [the parking problem] is worse, but mostly I think it’s that people don’t feel welcomed in our town,” said Robin Curletti who, with her husband Will, owns the popular Fuel coffee shop on Main Street.
“It’s the perception that there isn’t parking. In addition over the past 10 years we have seen growth on the second stories of the downtown buildings, of office spaces and residential, yet we have not increased parking.”
Curletti has written a letter to Select Board Chairman Sean Stanton urging the town to study the possibility of building a parking garage — perhaps at the site of the former Ried’s Cleaners building. She suggested the polluted site could be demolished and capped.
Walter “Buddy” Atwood, a former chairman of the Board of Selectmen, chaired a parking task force in 2011 that recommended and implemented new restrictions designed to place limits on parking lots that had little turnover. Also included was better signage.
“There is a southbound traffic problem,” Atwood told the Edge. “The parking problem does not exist — only in the minds of the downtown businesses. There are fewer businesses in downtown than there were two years ago.”
Sharon Gregory used to chair the town Finance Committee, and served on the most recent iteration of the parking task force that recommended the Spot Saver program for the duration of the Main Street Reconstruction project.
“I think the parking situation has worsened,” Gregory said in an interview, “with the opening of St. James Place, and more development going on.”
Gregory added that, “It used to be you couldn’t have apartments unless you had a parking spot for tenants. We eased up so landlords could provide more rentals, but that does put a lot of pressure on the streets.”
In an interview, Town Manager Jennifer Tabakin insisted the town has made progress in addressing the problem. She has met recently with Friedman and other downtown residential tenants who have concerns.
“The most immediate thing we can do is communicate what the options are at the moment,” Tabakin said. “They need to know what the opportunities are.”
She suggested the possibility of more and better signage, along with better education efforts. The town’s parking map, for example, has a second sheet on it explaining the rules. And there are also detailed parking and traffic regulations available for viewing.
New downtown residential projects are required to provide parking for their tenants as a condition for a special permit. However, that condition can be waived by the selectmen, as was the case with Sam Nickerson’s and Ian Rasch’s project at the top of Railroad Street. Nevertheless, Tabakin did say that Framework co-owner Ian Rasch is “actively looking for parking spots.”
Tabakin said there is plenty of parking for anyone willing to pay for it. Several businesses on the east side of Main Street, such as Wheeler & Taylor or some that abut the lot behind the former Foster’s Hardware store, lease out spaces. Some of those spaces are leased by downtown merchants for their employees.
Tabakin also said she thinks the hiring two years ago of parking enforcement officer Connor Storti, whom she described as “thorough and friendly,” has improved parking flow.
Tabakin said she will continue to meet with the downtown residents as needed. But addressing the parking issues is a balancing act that must satisfy visitors, residents and merchants. And that’s never an easy proposition.
As for Friedman, like Curletti, he’d like to see a parking garage. And he thinks those who insist there is no problem are in denial:
“If you don’t think we have a problem, watch drivers circle our streets on Saturdays like desperate sharks; watch folks double park on both sides of Railroad Street; tourists imagining it’s okay to block a lane of Main Street to run in to buy something.”