Parking problems: Three changes are in the works

Parking problems in the village may have no easy fix, but three potentially significant changes are brewing for one of the town’s long-standing difficulties.
Discussion at the March 20 selectmen’s meeting revealed:

  • The Parking Authority will meet next month with the Planning and Zoning Commission to discuss village parking — with a possible focus on tightening up of some regulations that relate occupancy to parking provided.

  • The town’s planned parking lot off Bailey Avenue is progressing, with revised plans potentially going into the permit process this spring.

  • The Parking Authority is negotiating licensing agreement renewals with major commercial property owners, with a model in which 20% of spaces would set aside for permit parking on properties where the town enforces time limits.

The discussion was prompted by the reappointment of Ancient Mariner owner Jessica Wilmot to the Parking Authority, which was approved by the selectmen at the end of a rambling discussion of parking issues.

Tighten up
With roughly 1,200 spaces throughout the village —and many commercial buildings that predate zoning regulations, the village and its Central Business District (CBD zone) are currently less restrictive on parking than the town’s other commercial zones.
In the CBD zone, the uses or tenants allowed in commercial buildings aren’t directly limited by the number parking spaces on that particular property — as is the case in other business areas.
In most commercial zones, retail uses require 4.25 parking spaces per 1,000 square feet of ground floor area while restaurants — considered high-traffic uses — require 15 spaces per 1,000 square feet of floor area. But in the village CBD zone, a new tenant moving into an existing building is exempt from these parking-based use requirements.
And new buildings developed in the CBD zone have to meet only 60% of the parking requirements that would apply if they were being built in commercial zones on Danbury Road or Route 7.
That approach is based on the idea of people will park once and then walk from one village destination to another — that the businesses essentially share the downtown’s roughly 1,200 parking spaces.
Discussion at the March 20 selectmen’s meeting suggested that while this policy has helped landlords find tenants to quickly refill empty storefronts, it may also have encouraged the predominance of restaurants — and the erosion of the village’s retail base of shops and stores.
“If this ends up looking like South Norwalk, with food use after food use, it’s not going to be comparative shopping. It’s ‘we’ve eaten, let’s go home,’ ” said Selectman Steve Zemo. “...In the long term it’ll be harder for people to survive.”
New lot
First Selectman Rudy Marconi told the meeting that the planned new village parking lot is still on the drawing boards, but making progress.
Voters in the last budget referendum approved $570,000 to build a new lot for about 60 cars on town land between Governor Street and Prospect Street, in the wooded area behind the Casey Energy property — a northward expansion of the town parking lot off Governor Street by the Boys and Girls Club.
The topography in the area has proven challenging, however.
“We’ve been through a couple of different versions that didn’t work,” Marconi said.
The original plan “had a 13-foot wall” due to changing elevations on the site, and was dropped on aesthetic grounds.
Currently, people see “a nice wooded area” and the goal is to put in more parking but still leave a buffer of trees.
“We have to be careful,” Marconi said.
Selectman Zemo said he thought the site might be “a nice opportunity for a park” accompanying the new lot.
“We don’t want it to look like ‘Fern Gully’ with all the trees down,” said Selectwoman Maureen Kozlark.
Marconi said he hoped to have the latest revision of the plans before the selectmen at their next meeting, scheduled for April 17.
If the board was comfortable with it, the plans could move pretty quickly into a permit application before the Planning and Zoning Commission. After approval, it would go out to bid, since money has already been approved.
New agreements
Wilmot told the selectmen that the Parking Authority had reached a new licensing agreement with the owner of the Benenson property — the CVS shopping center, beside Ballard Park.
The agreement, reached after more than a year of discussions, will allow town parking officers to ticket in the private lot, but will reduce the number of spaces set aside for “permit parking” — the permits sold by the town that exempt parked cars from posted time limits.
“A lot of people don’t realize how much day parking goes on,” Wilmot said.
Lisa Benenson Quattrocchi, one of the owners, had been intent on a reduction in the number of spaces in her lot where permit holders can overstay posted time limits.
“There was 64 out of 158 spaces, so she gave us 30,” Wilmot said.
Marconi said Quattrocchi had been troubled to find so many spaces in her lot lost to, essentially, all-day parking by employees of businesses in neighboring properties with less parking area.
“It shocked her,” Marconi said.
Wilmot said the authority is now working on new licensing agreements with other major commercial property owners — those with lots for 25 or more cars — based on the agreement it had reached with the Benenson property, with 20% of spaces devoted to permit parking.
The model will be to have 20% of spaces being set aside for “permit parking” by people who’ve paid for the right to be exempt for a period of time from the Parking Authority’s enforcement of posted parking times.
The motion to reappoint Wilmot to the Parking Authority was made by Selectman Zemo, seconded by Selectwoman Kozlark, and passed unanimously.
“She’s doing good work,” Zemo said.