The Somerville Business & Professional Association is not happy with a proposal that could increase fees for parking on Main Street and municipal lots scattered throughout the borough.
Borough officials introduced an ordinance Aug. 17 that would increase all meter parking on Main Street from 50 cents to $1 per hour and an increase to 75 cents from 25 cents for parking lots behind Main Street businesses. Current rates have been in effect since 1984, according to Colin Driver, the borough’s director of economic development and chair of the parking study group that recommended the increased fees.
The proposal also extends metered parking time Monday-Friday by three hours through 8 p.m. and adds metered parking for the first time on Saturday from 8 a.m. until 8 p.m.
Fines would also be increased from $23 to $29 for overtime parking.
Left intact would be the penny meters on Division Street by the US Post Office, where one cent pays for 12 minutes of parking.
A public hearing on the proposed rate hike is scheduled Sept. 8 in council chambers at police headquarters, North Bridge Street. If approved, the new rates would go into effect in January, 2016.
A companion ordinance creating a parking utility to administer and oversee the borough’s parking will be introduced at the Sept. 8 meeting.
Mayor Brian Gallagher appointed a task force in January to study management of the borough’s parking, which numbers 1,000 spaces. Overall, there are 2,500 parking spaces in the borough, including county parking garages on High Street and Veterans Memorial Drive East, a parking deck near the post office and nearly 400 spaces at the ShopRite off Veterans Memorial Drive West.
THE SBPA argues the increases will discourage shoppers and inconvenience the growing crowds that frequent the Main Street restaurants weeknights and weekends.
“Who’s going to come in to town to shop and feed the meter until 8 at night, or on Saturdays, getting up from your dinner to go outside and put in more quarters. It’s going to create problems, it’s not logical,” said Lorraine Sarra, treasurer of the SBPA.
“I don’t think Saturday parking is right; it’s not smart thinking, charging until 8 at night,” she added. “I don’t think that’s right either, 6 maybe, but it just doesn’t seem fair.
“It would be an inconvenience for both merchants and residents in the business district,” Sarra continued. “Free Saturday parking should remain in the lots. SID tax monies should be used for the lot maintenance as they are for the sidewalks.”
Somerville created its Special Improvement District (SID) in 1988; it was the second municipality in the state to do so. Known as the Downtown Somerville Alliance, all businesses and residential properties with five or more apartments are assessed a tax by the DSA, with those revenues used for physical improvements like sidewalks, plantings and sponsorship of events like the Somerville Jazz Fest and others. In 2011, the DSA paid for the Pay Station Parking system, paving, curbs and striping for borough parking lots with a $1 million loan.
Driver says the parking fee increase will generate more revenue for the borough. The task force projects a revenue increase of nearly 150 percent – a little more than $360,000 – and an increase in revenue from overtime fines totaling $125,000.
The expense of hiring additional enforcement officers will be offset by the increased revenues, according to Driver.
The additional revenues will also be dedicated to repairs and maintenance of the off street parking lots, Driver said.
“Two years ago we upgraded the lots and already, the blacktop is breaking up. We will have to mill and top it off,” Driver said. “Under the current system, property owners will pay for that through their property tax. Once these new initiatives are put into play, it will be a moot point.”
Still, Sarra is concerned.
“I hope I can get enough people out there to the meeting make a big enough stink, maybe get them to table the ordinance for further study,” Sarra said. “Otherwise they’re going to make a ghost town out of Somerville; you can go anywhere else and park for free.”
The SBPA has distributed a list of talking points to its members to encourage their attendance at the Sept. 8 meeting:
• Businesses are already inundated daily with customer complaints about the parking shortage and costs;
• The borough claims that this will help to alleviate the parking shortage on Main Street by keeping spaces open. If that were the actual motivation-why is the time limit still 5 hours?
• Businesses are already under intense pressure to survive with competition from the Bridgewater Commons Mall which offers tons of free parking, and the now burgeoning increase of online sales that has consumers shopping in their pajamas 24/7. Why make it harder and more inconvenient than it already is for potential customers to visit Somerville?
• There is the “point” that the increase will force people into the larger parking lots, which might work, but those parking lot rates will also increase;
• Local businesses will see no benefit, only financial disaster if parking rates are hiked. During the holidays when parking is free, business booms and customers love it, proving that parking fees do in fact influence the shopping in the downtown area;
• There’s a lot of press and hype about how Somerville is on the upswing. But if there has been so much effort and so much building going on why build it up with one hand and tear it down with another? Who will profit from this?
• What will all this mean in terms of their plans for free holiday parking? Will they be tossing that out as well? It seems like the “grinchy” thing to do.
Driver said the increase in fees is long overdue.
“We had to evaluate what revenue we were getting, what it was costing us to maintain and make recommendations to council, if changes were needed and what they would entail. What we found was that the current system and rate structure doesn’t support itself; it costs more to maintain the lots and equipment than what we’re bringing in,” Driver said.