Priority to customers or employers again question regarding downtown parking

LACONIA — For the second time in less than a year, the City Council began wrestling with how to allocate parking spaces in the center of the city between the customers and the employees of downtown businesses.

In January, the council agreed to designate 34 of the 38 vertical parking spaces on the east side of New Salem Street — on the north side of the railroad station — for all-day parking, leaving four spaces immediately behind the station restricted to two-hour parking for patrons of the businesses housed in the building. The 38 spaces had been evenly divided between two-hour and all-day parking.

In reallocating the spaces the council was responding to business owners, who found that all-day parking for their employees had become scarce after Lakes Region Community Services occupied the old Federal Building on North Main Street.

At the same time, the council prohibited on-street parking on Harvard Street between North Main Street and Dartmouth Street, where congestion posed risks to motorists leaving the Laconia Clinic lot by the Harvard Street exit.

Both changes were introduced for a trial period set to expire with the lifting of the winter parking parking ban, when the council would assess the impact and decide whether or not to make it permanent.

In returning the issue to the council this week, City Manager Scott Myers confessed that the expiration of the trial period in the spring slipped his mind. He said that since the changes were made he was not aware of any adverse effects and recommended the council act to make them permanent.

Although no reservations were expressed about banning parking on Harvard Street, building owner John Moriarty, speaking for the executive committee of the Main Street Initiative, asked the council to restore the two-hour parking spaces.

"You can plan for the past or plan for the present," Moriarty said during a Tuesday interview, "but the real challenge is to plan for the future." He noted that there is 75,000-square-feet of vacant commercial space to be occupied on Main Street. Anticipating future commercial development downtown, including the conversion of the former Evangelical Baptist Church to a restaurant and a use for the rotunda at the center of the railroad station, he said projected a need for parking that turns over frequently.

"We are looking of a long-term parking solution for downtown." Moriarty said. He suggested quantifying the number of employees requiring all-day parking downtown and allocating spaces for them. He estimated that between the parking garage, outdoor parking lots and on-street spaces there is space for more than 1,000 vehicles around the loop formed by Beacon Street East and Beacon Street West, enough to accommodate both employees and customers.

Councilor Brenda Baer (Ward 4) agreed, remarking that the city was investing in projects to attract businesses downtown and sufficient parking for customers was essential.

However, Councilor Henry Lipman (Ward 3) stressed the needs of two major employers — the Laconia Clinic and Lakes Region Community Services — and urged the council against taking any action. "It's not an immediate issue," he said. ""Extend it as is."

The council agreed to return to issue at its next regularly scheduled meeting on November 12.