Downtown parking debate raises temps at City Hall

LACONIA — "I don't even want to call it an issue, said Mayor Mike Seymour by way of introducing another discussion of downtown parking when the City Council met Monday evening,"because I think the only issue we have is a lot of empty spaces and we'd like to fill more of them."

As it turned out, the mayor misjudged the temper not only of the council but also of John Moriarty, president of the Main Street Initiative, an organization of downtown building and business owners. What Seymour preferred to call "a concern" sparked exchanges first between Councilor Brenda Baer (Ward 4) and Chris Santaniello, executive director of Lakes Region Community Services, and then between Councilors Henry Lipman (Ward 3 ) and Bob Hamel (Ward 5) and Moriarty.

Afterwards the council directed a Parking Committee, formed in 2012, to reconvene and prepare a report and recommendations to the council. At Moriarty's suggestion the committee, which consists of City Manager Scott Myers, Planning Director Shanna Saunders, Baer, Santaniello, Andy Patterson of the Laconia Clinic, Robert Sawyer of Sawyer's Jewelry and Moriarty, be expanded. Moriarty said he would like for residential, retail, entertainment, professional, hospitality and service interests to be represented.

In January, the council agreed to designate 34 of the 38 vertical parking spaces on the east side of New Salem Street for all-day parking, leaving four spaces immediately behind the historic railroad 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 (LRCS) 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, which passed unnoticed. Last month, when City Manager Scott Myers recommended both changes remain permanent, the council deferred its decision until this week.
Santaniello endorsed the arrangement, explaining that her agency provided as much on-site parking as the Planning Board permitted and appreciated the spaces on New Salem Street for employees. "I don't think us parking there impedes any downtown business," she said, and added that she found it "frustrating when there is an issue about us using those spaces they were empty most of the time."
However, Baer responded that "if there are so many empty spaces, you should have no objection to two-hour parking." She reminded Santaniello that when the LRCS acquired the Federal Building there was sufficient parking on-site for its employees. Santaniello explained that in renovating the building many of those spaces were lost in order to comply building and fire codes, but that recently 10 spaces had been added.
Noting that a restaurant would be opening on Veterans Square and efforts are underway to expand business downtown, Baer said that without sufficient parking "everything's for naught." Santanuiello stressed that she also wants downtown to thrive and said the agency brought employees, clients and visitors to the city. "You have your opinion and I have my opinion," she told Baer, "and we may not agree."
"I wish, I really wish I could address this with humor, with some other tool in the arsenal," Moriarty began ominously. "We're all trying to raise a tide that will lift all boats. You've got to know that. You've got to know that," he continued, his tone sharpening and voice rising, "we don't commit our resources because we feel like doing it. We do it so the community succeeds. '
"Excuse me, John," Lipman interrupted. Would you tone down your tone a bit. I feel like I'm being yelled at."
"I really wish I could use humor," Moriarty replied. "I'm obviously quite upset about this."
"You don't need to use humor. Just talk in a level tone," Lipman said.
Saying that "our concern is not really two-hour parking, it's what's coming next," Moriarty urged the council not to legislate "one parking space at a time."
"I've listened to you talk for 10 minutes," said Hamel, "and I have no clue what you're talking about — no clue. I don't know what you're looking for."
At this point Seymour intervened, offering to interpret what he called the "initial diatribe." He said that Moriarty appeared to be asking for a comprehensive parking plan for downtown in place of a piecemeal approach.
"Yes!" said Moriarty, who added that the plan should be based on data profiling the number of parking spaces, who uses them and for how long and so forth.
Hamel said that the councilors relied on the property and business owners downtown to provide that information and urged them to present a plan rather than engage in a perpetual back and forth with the council.
It was Baer who, reading through the minutes of past discussions of the parking question, proposed directing the Parking Committee to prepare a plan.