Portsmouth planners say in the next six years, the city will need at least 650 more parking spaces But last year, a new parking lot championed by the then-mayor failed to gather support among city councilors. The future of parking in the city became a divisive issue in last November’s council election.
On Monday, the newly elected council took the oath of office. It's likely this month they will begin trying to reach agreement once again on whether a new parking garage downtown will help or harm the future of Portsmouth.
It’s not hunger, or crime, or a natural disaster. But few in Portsmouth hesitate when referring to the parking situation downtown as a crisis. Of course, this kind of crisis is born in the best of circumstances: as spendy tourists and businesses flock to the city, and the region’s population grows.
A Garage Downtown
But it is that very success that long-time city councilor Chris Dwyer says is at stake if another public garage doesn’t get built soon.
I think we’ve got to provide for visitors, residents and businesses, and part of that is gonna be a garage.
On the other side, people who oppose a downtown parking garage say successful cities like Boston, Chicago, or San Francisco -- they’re not building parking garages, they’re limiting parking.
And that’s an idea long time city councilor and new mayor Bob Lister ran on in the last election. He ended up winning the most votes. "This being an old city," Lister says, "there's no way you can retrofit so everyone can park downtown in Market Square, it's just not going to happen."
Right now, there are about 2,500 parking spaces within a 5-minute walk of the center of town. Those are often completely full, as is Portsmouth’s one downtown garage -- which this year reached capacity 234 days in 2013 – that’s more than twice the number of times it closed in 2012.
On the other hand, about 3,000 more parking spots are available 10 or 15 minutes from the town center. Those reach capacity less often. Mayor Lister says "we need to encourage people to do a little bit of walking."
Is Parking Too Cheap?
There are people out there who have dedicated their careers to studying parking. Donald Shoup one of the most renowned. He specializes in the economics of parking at the University of California Los Angeles. And he says cities have the power to change peoples’ parking behavior.
If you get the price of parking right, you'll solve most of your problems.
Shoup says just like the price of gasoline or tires, parking should cost whatever people are willing to pay. Cities should charge more or less depending on location and time of day. That way, he says, people who can, will park farther outside town and walk in. "When I see that one or two open spaces are available on every block," Shoup says, "then the price is right."
Right now, it costs 75 cents to park in Portsmouth’s downtown garage, and the first hour is free. But officials have changed downtown street parking based on Shoup’s principles. Last year, prices increased from $1.00 to $1.50 an hour, making it the most expensive street parking in the state. And consultants to the city have suggested rates increase further.
According to Shoup’s model, pricier downtown parking could be a good incentive for people to use satellite parking lots. That’s an idea Mayor Lister and others have been throwing around:
We're looking at satellite, at a place where workers who come into the city don't have to tie up their cars downtown all day, but can be shuttled out to some other place, and the residents and tourists can use the parking downtown.
Councilor Chris Dwyer says that’s something she’d consider - but she’s skeptical. Two months ago, she says, the city began issuing discounted parking passes to employees for a lot about 5 minutes from the city center. At least initially, Dwyer says, people haven’t been taking advantage of it. "That tells me if folks aren't willing to park at the end of Market Street and walk in, they might not be willing to shuttle."
The Debate Begins Again
Lister and Dwyer do agree on a few things. For one - as Lister says, "people want this solved."
And, Dwyer adds, "it’s always helpful to do something controversial early in the term, before people start worrying about reelection."
The debate over what to do about parking is bound to heat up in the next month or so as the new council gets underway. Of course, the devil is in the details – but three councilors seem likely to vote in favor of a downtown lot, three seem likely to vote against it, and three more are waiting for specific proposals before they show their cards.
At the same time, the council will also keep an eye on a yet-to-be-approved development downtown. That’s a new building that would contain condos, a Whole Foods store, a convention center -- and possibly 100 public parking spaces.
But parking isn’t the end of the conversation -- more likely, it’s the beginning. Lister, Dwyer, and many of the other city councilors also agree the city needs a full-blown transportation plan. Whether that includes shuttles, bike lanes, garages.. or, perhaps, pricier parking rates -- we’ll have to see.