For over ten years, the city of Portsmouth has been trying to decide whether and where to build a second downtown parking garage. On Monday night, city councilors voted unanimously to bond a $23 million new garage.
Of the 150 or so people who packed City Hall, more than 50 testified in favor of the garage; four testified against it. Pressure was on for the three city councilors who had indicated uncertainty over the project.
People have called this the most civically engaged city in the country’s most civically engaged state. Suffice it to say: people here care about Portsmouth’s buildings, its views, its growth. But for many including 26 year-old Jeff Kisiel, “parking is the biggest issue in this town.”
Like Kisiel, forty-year Portsmouth resident Dixie McLean Tarbell beseeched city councilors to approve the bond. She was already organizing her thoughts days before the hearing.
“I’ve just given up on driving downtown,” says McLean Tarbell. “If it’s bad weather I’ll just go outside of Portsmouth, because I’m tired of driving around and around looking for a parking place.”
The new parking garage will sit just north of downtown, near railroad tracks and a popular package store. According to the most recent proposal, the garage will have 600 parking spaces, be lined with retail space on one side, and have micro-sized apartments on the other.
A Fundamental Disagreement
Local attorney Susan Denenberg was one of a few who spoke out in opposition to the garage. She says businesses should have to build and pay for their own parking. “They have not put in sufficient parking,” she says, “so what they're essentially doing is saying ‘lets lay the burden on someone else.’”
Her concerns get at a fundamental disagreement felt by many in Portsmouth and which has been subtlety driving the parking garage debate.
Is Portsmouth’s rapid commercial growth helping or hurting city residents?
Jack Thorsen was one of three city councilors who were still undecided the weekend before the vote. Last Friday, Denenberg’s concerns were on his mind, too.
“Because we are asking residents to pay in taxes for the garage, I need to make sure they're getting value back for it.” He says.
At the beginning, Thorsen says, he was a proponent of the new garage. “Then,” he says, “I saw the price.”
It came to $23 million in all, or $37,000. That’s $17,000 more per parking spot than garages cost in Boston, Thorsen says.
Who Is Subsidizing Whom?
Of all the cities in New Hampshire, Portsmouth has the lowest residential property tax rate, largely due to the city’s broad commercial tax base. A recent third-party analysis found that building the garage would increase commercial and residential property values, offsetting at least 40 percent of the garage’s overall cost to taxpayers.
Despite broad support from residents, Councilor Thorsen says residents are still picking up too much of the tab for a parking garage that will overwhelmingly benefit businesses. On Monday night, he proposed a 50% parking discount for people living in the city.
By the time the vote passed, the public hearing had lasted four hours: it was after 11pm. Robin
Lurie-Meyerkopf wasn’t tired. “I’m excited” she said. “I think it’s great. I hope we get the parking, the micro-apartments, the park, the open space. I think it’s fantastic!”
After more than a decade of negotiation and deliberation, Portsmouth can now dig into the details of its second parking garage.