To The Daily Sun,
I have been asked repeatedly to share the opinion of the Downtown Laconia residents, employees, customers and merchants about parking, in my capacity as president of the Laconia Main Street Initiative. It appears prudent to continue my response, which has been that parking — it's quality, quantity and locality — is the single biggest, and most often talked about issue in downtown and yet there exists absolutely no consensus as to the solution. So, I will instead share my own personal observations from the hours that I have spent in downtown attempting to clinically, if not scientifically, observe this phenomenon.
First, let me remind myself of the maxim that human tendency is to plan for the past; it is difficult to plan for the present; but it is imperative to plan for the future. With that in mind, one finds it easy to quip that we have no need to worry about parking because in a decade or two, we will all have an autopilot Google car drop us off in downtown while we conduct our business. The car will go park itself in some distant place where it will wait for us to send it a text message whence it will return to pick us up as we emerge onto the sidewalk. Parking problem solved.
I could go on about how the Google car will run out of energy, so we'll have to put jacks into each parking space for these vehicles to recharge, but this would necessitate that we have a mechanism to collect a fee for not only the space but the energy too. At that point we'll have an app on our smartphone that allows us to pay for the space and automatically forward our license plate number to an LPD parking database. (Why doesn't that app exist already in lieu of parking kiosks? ...or maybe it already does?). Periodically, drones could fly over downtown comparing license plate numbers and GPS coordinates with the database, and then issue citations where appropriate. Welcome to a Brave New World.
Now that I have your attention with the not-so-far-fetched absurd, let me tone it down.
The Laconia Main Street Initiative, as a member of the New Hampshire Vibrant Communities network, has been told that the economics of parking are such that parking structures should only be entertained when land prices exceed one million dollars per acre. Below that point it makes more economic sense to build out, rather than up. Let's say you wanted to build a small garage with 150 spaces and let's speculate that the cost would be $30,000 per space. That total would be $4,500,000. If instead we bought an imaginary field for its assessed value of $125,000 and improved it with drainage, asphalt, planters and striped and signed the lot, the comparative cost would likely be less than one quarter of the cost of building a parking garage. As you can see, if you plot these two curves, one could presumably arrive at the corner solution where the costs breakeven when the land component of both exceeds one million dollars. Further inspection would likely show that maintenance of a surface level parking lot verses a steel and concrete parking structure is substantially less financially expensive. The final term in my imaginary equation is that user friendliness and hence usage would be higher in a surface level lot than in a multi-tiered garage. It cost less and tastes great; what a winning combination.
It seems then that the question should be, how much parking do we need in downtown? As published earlier, from a barely scientific approach, it appears that our current parking demand maxes-out at about 60 percent of our existing parking. This includes the more-or-less unused parking garage, which is to say that drivers prefer surface level lots. Moreover, if the existing garage were to be razed, and converted to surface level parking and one other parcel were improved for surface level parking, would we then meet the current demand for parking with a conservative margin of 30 percent for future growth? Even with the operation of the newly improved theater, most evenings would not exceed the proposed supply. The only place that I really see demand not keeping up with supply is during the school year, when dance classes are in session and the theater were to hold a matinee. In this case Saturday parking would likely not keep pace.
The existing parking garage is more than four decades old. The decision we make today will hopefully be as long lasting but more beneficial. My understanding is that the urban renewal folks, 50 years ago, couldn't decide where the garage should be located, nor what the capacity should be. Private investment wanted more space. What resulted was a quick, albeit poor, design and a solution that didn't work. The lesson that I take away is that rushing a decision seldom pays off.
I believe every single member of City Council is to be commended and thanked because they have been proactive about taking actions to ensure that downtown Laconia rises to its highest and best use. My hope is that they take time to formulate several different solutions and to vet all of those proposals with the citizens and stakeholders.