Council contenders ponder parking

(EDITOR’S NOTE: Today the Sun-Gazette continues its question-and-answer series involving candidates for Williamsport City Council.)

Six City Council candidates seeking three open seats in the Nov. 5 general election weighed in on the issue of parking and whether the city administration should continue on its course of building parking decks to meet the demand.

Seeking re-election are Councilmen Randall J. Allison, of 1308 Elmira St., and N. Clifford “Skip” Smith, of 835 First Ave., both Republicans, and Councilwoman Liz Miele, of 525 W. Fourth St., a Democrat.

Challengers are Scott Miller, of 822 Tucker St., a Republican, and Alison D. Hirsch, of 423 Rural Ave., and Kelly Anderson, of 533 Seventh Ave., Democrats.

Q: What are your ideas on the downtown parking situation? Do you favor continued development of garages, and if so why?

Allison: It’s a positive development that center city and beyond need parking … an indication of growth and activity creating demand for more capacity.

We also need to be open to new ideas and be informed about options other than the traditional parking deck as we move forward and anticipate more retail/office development and increased rental/living space downtown … options include bump-up parking structures that aren’t as costly or permanent as regular decks.

We also need to think about flat surface parking, where it’s appropriate … which can accommodate a retail component as frontage to a street.

We will continue to evaluate our use of parking meters and/or the possible use of a monthly movable parking pass that could be used in a deck or on street … and want to be working with developers, other institutional and private stakeholders and the parking authority in the future to come up with the very best uses of land that is available and needed for parking.

The city officials are looking downtown but also to the north and east.

Anderson: Considering the complaints I’ve heard about the parking garage they are trying to build, I don’t think the city needs another parking deck right now because it’s not fiscally feasible. I know some taxpayers might not like to hear that, but it’s the truth. When you are running for City Council you have to state the truth and not what you think somebody might want to hear.

Citizens downtown look for the closest place to park where they work. Church Street parking lot is a little further away than the businesses most of us frequent, but we need to utilize it as a place to park.

Unfortunately, the deck is three blocks away from many of the shops, restaurants and stores people shop at. In the winter, who wants to walk through snow and slush? But the garage is the alternative the city has now. The Third Street garage also should be used to its fullest, but since that parking garage has been there long most of the spaces are taken.

Hirsch: On parking, a recently held Williamsport Business Association meeting included an invitation of the city administration to answer questions. … When it comes to parking, the city needs to reach out to all of its customers who are using and need parking downtown.

Issues addressed should be whether there is sufficient parking for handicapped and if there is available parking, and can we have people walk a few blocks or so? More walking is a good thing.

We also have the option of using transit and exploring those possibilities.

Miele: Cities should build their centers around pedestrians, and think of cars as secondary … to me, a mistake we’ve made for far too long is to focus on making it easy for cars to move quickly in our central business district and to encourage drivers to park directly in front of their destination.

Pedestrian traffic means that people might walk into downtown stores en route to their destination … and with less of a downtown footprint, there’s more room for streetfront retail and that means parking decks are a desirable alternative to surface parking, especially if the space in front of those decks can be set aside for retail purposes.

The city needs to be aggressively encouraging small retail businesses downtown. A key to creating a vibrant pedestrian atmosphere is to have a density and variety of businesses that gives walkers something to see and do and makes them feel safe and comfortable walking. We have a large number of successful businesses in downtown, but there’s room for plenty more and as a city government, we need to provide incentives not just for large businesses, but for small ones.

I’d like to see the private market get involved in constructing parking, whether it’s a bump-up lot or a basement parking garage or any other approach … and while putting a lot resources into parking, with the federal funding situation, we’re not likely to find more funding for another deck anytime soon. What can be funded much more easily is better bike and pedestrian access to downtown, which may help encourage people to leave their cars at home.

Miller: If we don’t improve the downtown parking situation, businesses will not have a place for their customers to park. This lack of adequate parking will negatively impact the business climate and community.

We need to look carefully at the options available and come to some consensus on parking, which might include a parking study and other measures. It’s my understanding that we do have contractual agreements with Kohl’s and other businesses downtown and we must fulfill that obligation or could face potential litigation.

Smith: As a city, we must provide adequate parking for customers coming into the downtown to purchase goods and services and for those working in office buildings in the downtown … but with only so much space horizontally to build parking lots we must build vertically to accommodate current and future needs, such as building office buildings and including retail as part of the structure.

Certain areas of the downtown would be viable for the placement of bump-up parking to accommodate parking closer to certain businesses and offices. In most cities, parking decks are the choice over lots as much more parking spaces are available and the Third Street deck is a good example of a modern facility.

Since the Economic Revitalization Committee is studying parking in the eastern part of the downtown, their study may reveal other needs in that area which should be addressed in future planning.