If you’ve never had to hunt for a parking place in Saratoga Springs, odds are you’ve never been to the city’s downtown restaurants or the Broadway shopping district.
Even on weekdays and with the construction of new parking decks in the past two decades, finding parking is tough enough that city officials are again thinking about whether something different needs to be done.
City Public Safety Commissioner Peter Martin said the meeting will be about gathering public input as the city prepares to seek proposals from outside consulting firms that specialize in municipal parking issues.
“I want to do it in a way that comes at this without any preconceived solutions,” Martin said. “We’re going to get all of the stakeholders together.”
Previous ideas for managing parking, including changing downtown traffic flows or charging for public parking, have met with fatal resistance. Martin hopes bringing in an outside firm to take a fresh look at the situation will bring with it new ideas, or lessen the resistance to some previous ideas, should they be recommended.
In some sense, of course, the tight parking situation arises from the city’s success at becoming a “destination location,” where people want to come to eat and shop, even if finding nearby parking takes time and effort.
A study released last week estimates that tourists and other visitors contribute about $1 billion a year to the Saratoga County economy, and having readily available parking would seem to be a key part of satisfying the needs of visitors. But those downtown businesses also need places where their employees can park and downtown apartment residents need places where they can park.
On paper, the city has plenty of parking: There are about 2,300 spaces in and near downtown, spread among public or private parking locations — including three parking garages. But even on a weekday, nearly all those spots might be taken.
In June, the city for the first time imposed limits on the amount of time people can park in most spots in the parking decks, but no one considers that more than a short-term answer to making sure there are spots when visitors need them.
Some see the $12 million, five-story City Center parking garage now being built on Maple Avenue across from the City Center as a major part of the answer. But in the short term, its construction is part of the problem.
Between now and next summer, parking across downtown will be tighter, since construction of the City Center parking garage is temporarily taking away nearly 200 spaces that were previously in the High Rock Avenue surface lot. The garage, when finished, will add a net 300 parking spaces, but those will be closely associated with the City Center’s convention business.
“We have to get through this, but it will be better afterward,” said Darryl Leggieri, executive director of Discover Saratoga, which markets the city as a destination for group meetings and conventions.
While the garage is closely associated with the City Center, all of downtown will benefit, Leggieri said.
It will offer short-term free public parking, but will be charging for parking for more than a couple of hours. Leggieri said that will be a good test of whether the public would tolerate paid parking in downtown Saratoga Springs, as there is in other upstate resort communities, including Lake George and Lake Placid.
“I’m not looking to go down that road yet, but this will be a good barometer,” Leggieri said.
The Saratoga County Chamber of Commerce has resolutely opposed the idea of paid parking, though it has accepted the planned arrangement for the City Center garage.
“[Martin] is making sure that if a consultant is hired, it’s about parking management and not, as a previous consultant thought, about getting the most revenue out of parking meters,” said chamber President Todd Shimkus. “I’m still not convinced we have the right time limits, and an expert can come in and look at that.”
Shimkus noted there are “smart” technologies available that could give those entering a parking structure an alert if the upper levels of the garage are full, though the city doesn’t currently use them.
But beyond that, he said a parking solution may lie in encouraging people to get downtown by means other than cars.
“If we’re drawing people downtown, we need to be way more bikeable,” Shimkus said. “We’re a walkable community, but we’re not a bikeable community. Bikes can be part of the solution, and public transportation part of the solution.
“Part of parking management to us is finding other ways to get people into downtown besides cars,” Shimkus said. “It’s never been considered, though.”
Martin, who did not seek re-election and is leaving office at the end of the year, said his goal is for the city to issue a request for proposals by the end of the year, though the responses wouldn’t come back until January, when the next City Council will decide whether to pursue the study.
He said no ideas should be off the table, though recommendations for moves like using “smart” technology would need to include feasibility and cost estimates.
“I’m not proposing dictating what the solution is, I’m looking for a [request for proposals] that will look at all those possible solutions,” he said.
If the council decides to proceed, Martin said he hopes the study could be completed within three to six months.