LACONIA — Downtown parking is an issue that continues to bedevil city officials and businesses owners, alike.
The matter received considerable attention at Monday’s City Council meeting with some downtown property owners questioning a plan to lease 18 parking spaces to the residents of the condominiums in the Colonial Theatre building.
Under the proposal, 18 spaces currently limited to two-hour parking, would be reserved for the exclusive use of the occupants of nine residential condominiums which are being developed as part of the multimillion-dollar Colonial restoration project. Eight of the spaces would be in the parking lot between Main and Pleasant streets, with the other 10 in the so-called City Hall lot on Beacon Street East.
Robert Sawyer, who owns the building at 50-62 Canal St. which houses several small businesses, said the short-term spaces are critical to the success of his tenants’ businesses, whose customers patronize the establishments in part because of nearby parking.
Patrick Wood, a recently retired attorney who for many years had his law office downtown, questioned the fairness of giving the occupants of one building parking privileges not available to others.
”You can’t play favorites when you’re the government,” he said.
At present downtown parking is free. While the council has discussed the idea of paid parking it has not taken affirmative steps in that regard.
In voicing his objection to the space lease plan, Sawyer said he had only learned of the proposal a week ago. But City Manager Scott Myers said the plan to lease the parking spaces as part of the residential component of the Colonial restoration had been announced publicly two years ago by then-Mayor Ed Engler.
Sawyer and some councilors said they were not opposed to reserving spaces for the Colonial residents in principle, but suggested they not be created at the expense of the existing inventory of 285 two-hour parking spaces in the downtown. In addition, there are about 340 all-day spaces downtown, according to Public Works Director Wes Anderson. About 112 of those spaces are located in the partially usable downtown parking garage.
Some councilors further questioned the amount the city would get for renting the spaces as well as the 99-year term of the lease.
As currently proposed, each space would be leased at a cost of $27 a month, with the rent increasing 10 percent every five years during the 99-year term of the lease. The rent would be paid in advance for each five-year increment. In addition, the condo owners would pay property tax for their respective spaces.
The council scheduled a public hearing for Oct. 12 on the lease plan.
Myers said the economic benefit of having residential condominiums in the downtown area would be a boost to downtown businesses as well as the city as whole.
Councilor Henry Lipman stressed that the Colonial project had rescued the deteriorating 107-year-old building which had become an “albatross,” and he urged critics to look at the parking-space lease plan in light of the overall economic benefits to the city and its businesses.
“Don’t let the perfect become the enemy of the good,” he said.
What the city should do to deal with the worsening condition of the parking garage will be the subject of a public hearing which the council will hold on Sept. 27.
Myers reviewed estimates on alternative plans to deal with the problem.
The cost to reconstruct and upgrade the existing structure has been placed at between $6 million and $6.6 million, while the cost to dismantle the current parking decks and build a new roof over the ground floor businesses would run about $2 million, he said. The cost for a new parking facility which would have the same 250-car capacity as the current parking garage would be between $10 million and $12 million, Myers said.
“We’ve come to the point where we have to make a decision,” Councilor Bob Hamel said in calling for the open forum to get public input on the issue.
“The challenges compound while the price compounds,” Myers said. Referring to the work the city has done in recent years to shore up the structure, he said, “The Band-Aid repairs are becoming expensive Band-Aids.”