Editor’s note: The following is part two of a two-part package on the city’s parking crunch. The first part appeared on Sunday.
Linda Scott said she saw more people downtown than ever last year.
“What the city and Metroplex has been doing has been absolutely amazing, and we couldn’t be happier with that,” said Scott, owner of Orion Boutique on the Jay Street Marketplace.
Despite pandemic-caused shutdowns that have events at Proctors on hiatus, downtown is changing at a rapid clip, growth only poised to be accelerated by a $9.7 million pot of state economic development funds officials hope will galvanize broader investment.
Now as developers continue to transform underutilized stretches of real estate into apartments and retail space — including a plan to reshape the Clinton Street corridor stretching from City Hall to Broadway — residents and business owners are calling for the city to seriously study parking.
Scott pointed at the increase of downtown apartment units:
Over 1,100 have been built in the past seven years, according to Schenectady Metroplex Development Authority, while a recent housing study reveals downtown could potentially absorb between 675 and 850 new rental units alone over the next five years — not including new condos and townhouses.
With the shift, customers are complaining about finding a place to park, Scott said.
“Parking really needs to be addressed,” Scott said. “I think we’re getting a little out of balance with that in some cases.
“Nothing will lose you business faster than not having parking.”
Grumbling over downtown parking is chronic.
But fault lines emerged on Aug. 5 when Redburn Development Partners sought a variance for the 73 off-street spots required for their planned 49-unit apartment building on the footprint of the former Citizens Bank at 501 State St.
The response was not good.
While neighboring business owners largely praised the project, all of them opposed a full variance, contending removing the parking mandate will only exacerbate ongoing issues.
Dan Hickey has owned the building housing Puzzles Bakery & Cafe since 2012.
“Parking has always been a major issue during business hours and has continued to get worse as the downtown has developed,” Hickey wrote in a letter to the city Board of Zoning Appeals. “I often spend 15-20 minutes circling the city looking for parking when I visit the property.”
Several business owners said the crunch poses an existential threat to their livelihoods, and noted demolition of the former bank building itself has already led to the removal of roughly four-dozen spots used by downtown visitors, further stressing limited resources.
At the same time, renovation of the 12-unit Fitzgerald Building on Clinton Street has increased demand.
In the cutthroat world of downtown parking, Moisture Salon owner Ron Suriano II has sparred at times with his neighbor, Katie Toombs, who owns a law firm specializing in elder care.
But they’ve now formed an allegiance as spaces shrink, a measure they contend has been detrimental to their clients.
Both said they would consider relocating if officials can’t come up with a long-term strategy.
“We have a problem down here,” Suriano told commissioners at a meeting last month. “And you guys allowing this will be more of a problem.”
Redburn pulled the request, and said they’re working out a deal to provide parking behind the nearby Bank of America building, which they hope to purchase if their request for $2.75 million in state grant funding is fulfilled.
But issues go beyond a single project, say residents.
Grace Imbesi has lived downtown for three years, and has worked in the neighborhood for five.
“With all of the residents, employees and customers, the metered parking is already extremely limited, not to mention the sparse free parking,” Imbesi wrote in a letter to the city Board of Zoning Appeals. “No residents want to pay a meter all day to be inside of their homes, nor do we want to pay meters all day just to be at work. More off-street parking is desperately needed in our city.”
Officials often say parking is a good problem to have, noting the lean years when downtown hosted more tumbleweeds than tenants.
But at what point is a comprehensive strategy needed beyond an ad hoc approach?
“I think it absolutely makes sense to conduct a parking study to develop what the best solutions are,” said city Planning Commission Chairwoman Mary Moore Wallinger.
In some ways, the debate over parking presents two sets of paradoxes:
More residents leads to greater demand for parking resources. But those same tenants are critical to driving foot traffic to businesses and diversifying the economy, creating an ecosystem beyond just restaurants catering to the Proctors and office crowds.
The other is that downtown is an expanse of open pavement, whether the parking lot across Franklin Street from City Hall or the sprawling series of lots stretching up Liberty Street to Clarkson University’s Capital Region Campus and across Nott Terrace.
There are numerous parking garages; a constellation of privately owned lots, as well the 14 lots owned by Metroplex and operated by Laz Parking.
While authorities haven’t conducted an official count recently, a 2008 city report estimated 60 percent of downtown is paved surfaces.
Officials acknowledge that the number of privately owned lots, most of which sit empty at nights and weekends, is excessive.
“It’s quite clear Schenectady’s downtown suffers from being chopped up by a disorganized network of surface lots,” said Brendan Keller, an attorney and member of the city Board of Zoning Appeals.
So why aren’t those being utilized? Zoning commissioners posed the question to Redburn.
It’s industry practice to look for cost-free options first, said Damien Pinto-Martin, Redburn’s vice president of development.
Urban planners have largely come to view surface lots as detrimental; a waste of valuable real estate and an impediment to walkability, a viewpoint shared by Redburn and city planning officials, who have weighed repealing the requirement altogether pending a formal study.
“There are a healthy number of surface lots cities have and we are way beyond that,” Wallinger said.
Scrapping the requirement will hopefully lead to better planning by developers, said Wallinger, and would also nudge them into embracing more modern urban design principles that emphasize walkability and compact downtowns.
For officials, technology is one answer to bridging the gap between the perceived shortage and the surplus of surface lots.
Mayor Gary McCarthy said the city does not have plans to commence a formal parking study because the upcoming launch of the Passport smartphone app will help better manage resources and collect data that will track driver usage and habits, including where people are parking and for how long.
“We’ll have greater information coming in to adapt to the needs of businesses, residents and visitors,” McCarthy said.
Officials hope the joint effort between the city and Metroplex will eventually pave the way for a system that will regulate the flow of users at different times, and better accommodate shared parking solutions between residents, workers and visitors.
For instance, office workers would utilize spots during the day. Once they leave, they’ll be replaced by downtown apartment dwellers during nights and weekends.
In an effort to accommodate businesses, users would ideally be rotated throughout the network, a measure designed to relieve chokepoints in the system, including busy lots like Clinton North located behind the Jay Street Marketplace — and just feet from the new apartment building.
The city suspended all parking fees early on in the pandemic, a measure that remains in effect as of Friday.
A formal launch is expected sometime this fall following weeks of soft rollout, with motorists being asked to sign up for the system.
Business owners are cautiously optimistic about the new technology, but questions linger, particularly when it comes to if the two-hour limit will be retained downtown and how senior citizens will adapt to the system.
“Our biggest concerns are with the older generation,” said Abby Rockmacher, president of the Jay Street Business Association. “We’re nervous about people not understanding it, and we don’t want it to be a deterrent to not come stay downtown.”
Rockmacher agrees a parking study is needed, and said City Hall should meet with downtown business owners before formally launching the new system.
While the city ripped out all parking meters in April, kiosks remain and can be utilized by those opting not to use Passport.
Metroplex has said it has enough capacity in its 2,350-unit system and recent vehicle counts reveal volume is down to a third of what it was before the pandemic.
“Due to COVID, we have lots of capacity downtown right now as many employees are still working from home,” said Metroplex Chairman Ray Gillen. “We expect this situation to continue for some time to come.”
Others have floated the idea of a second parking garage in addition to Metroplex’s structure on Broadway.
“I think we’re at a point to explore whether it makes sense to have a second parking garage downtown,” said Wallinger, who cited the underground parking garage at Electric City Apartments as a key example of smart urban planning.
Redburn will not create underground parking as part of the 501 State St. project, citing prohibitive costs that would dramatically reshape the project.
Wallinger acknowledged high costs — a controversial new garage in Saratoga Springs cost $16 million — and said perhaps the best option is for Metroplex and the city to partner on a project.
Gillen said there are no plans for a second unit.
“Right now, no discussions are underway on a second parking garage downtown,” Gillen said.
However, as part of the Schenectady Downtown Revitalization Initiative, Highbridge Prime Development is seeking $3 million in state funds to demolish two buildings between its Electric City Apartments and the Mill Artisan District on lower State Street and build a five-story mixed-use building with 17 apartments and nearly 300 parking spaces.
That project was on the final list of projects recommended for funding submitted to the state last week.
If it moves forward, the upper lot will be made available for public access, said CEO John Roth on Friday.
Another option is for developers to craft shared parking agreements with private lot owners, which is what Redburn is doing for 501 State St.
“There’s definitely a lot of pavement downtown that could be utilized,” Wallinger said.
At least one private lot owner has stepped forward to assist.
Brooke and Chris Spraragen purchased a two-story building across from City Hall in March, and the sale included a separate 28-unit parking lot located next to the Shamrock Pub on Clinton Street.
“Given its close proximity to the project, we would be happy to entertain speaking with residents and collectively come up with a parking solution,” Brooke wrote in a letter to the city Board of Zoning Appeals.
Gillen also said Metroplex will determine if they can move some of the monthly permits at Clinton North to free up more space for short-term hourly parking.
“If that helps businesses in this corridor, we want to do it,” Gillen said.
While technology and working with private lot owners present some solutions, the public also needs to shift away from the expectation of free parking located directly in front of every destination, Wallinger said.
It’s a matter of perception, Wallinger said. People generally don’t have a problem with walking across vast box store parking lots and through interiors, but chafe at walking several downtown blocks.
“I think it takes time to change it,” Wallinger said. “It’s a constant complaint for cities all over the place. But if you’re a successful city, it doesn’t stop people from coming.”
That’s why smart urban planning emphasizing diverse storefronts and compactness is so important, she said.
“People will walk further if [cities] are designed well and they’re interesting,” Wallinger said. “One of the benefits and luxuries of living downtown is maybe you park a little further away, but you stop at a store or restaurant and support the neighborhood on the way home and on the way to work.”