Less than two years after Keene removed parking meters from one side of Central Square, a City Council committee is recommending putting them back at the request of a local business owner.
The parking kiosk that replaced those meters came under fire at a meeting of the council’s municipal services, facilities and infrastructure committee Wednesday night.
Dorrie Masten owns two establishments right by the kiosk — Pedraza’s Mexican Restaurant and The Pour House — and says the device so frustrates customers that it’s costing her business.
She came to the committee meeting to ask that the city remove the kiosk and go back to the coin-fed parking meters, which were there until mid-2017.
She wasn’t alone in her frustration with the kiosk. Multiple city councilors said they hear complaints about the machine — which involves entering one’s license plate number — or have seen people struggle to use it.
“I was driving down Gilbo Avenue, and I thought a presidential candidate was in town,” Councilor Robert B. Sutherland said of a different kiosk a few blocks away. “But no — and this is true — there were six people huddled around the kiosk on the new Gilbo Ave. parking lot.”
Councilor Randy L. Filiault said he hears more complaints about parking kiosks than about panhandling and dog poop on sidewalks. “That particular kiosk over there, I can tell you firsthand, is a disaster, a PR disaster for Keene,” he said of the one on Central Square.
While the city has been installing parking kiosks over the past several years, the one on Central Square is the only kiosk for on-street parking. The others are in parking lots.
The city placed the kiosk on the west side of Central Square in summer 2017 when it did drainage and other work there, while leaving meters on the rest of the square. Masten has said she was initially supportive of the kiosk, but turned against it after seeing customers’ reaction. She also asked the city to remove the kiosk last year, without success.
On Wednesday, several councilors said it’s unfair to merchants for the city to handle on-street parking differently in one small part of downtown.
“Parking is such a habitual thing,” said Councilor George S. Hansel, who doesn’t sit on the committee and spoke from the floor. “If (on) 90 percent of Main Street, people are used to parking there and throwing coins in the meter, if I’m going around the roundabout, and I don’t see one of those coin meters, I’ll go down to the next area.”
The panel voted 4-1 to recommend removing the kiosk. The matter now goes to the full council for a vote, presumably next week.
The lone dissenter, Councilor Gary P. Lamoureux, said the committee had not heard enough information to make a decision.
“I don’t have enough information to just move forward and move these meters back into this location, when we’ve asked questions about statistical information, information that could change our minds,” said Lamoureux, the city’s former parking project manager.
Earlier, Lamoureux had asked Keene Police Chief Steven Russo about statistics on parking-space usage before and after the kiosk went in. Russo said he could compile that data but did not have it with him.
No one said how much it would cost to remove the kiosk and reinstall coin-fed meters. City Manager Elizabeth Dragon said the city has some old meters in stock, but she wasn’t sure how many or what condition they are in.
She later told a reporter she does not know how much the project would cost.
During the meeting, Dragon advised against acting on Masten’s request, saying it should be part of a larger discussion about developing a plan for downtown parking.
She said the city is reaching out to downtown merchants and property owners, to engage as many as possible in that discussion.
“I have heard from other people, other businesses around Central Square, who are interested in having a kiosk because they, too, would like to have some additional space for outdoor eating,” Dragon said, referencing the extra space freed up when meters are removed.
“So I think it’s important that before we expend any money,” Dragon continued, “before we tear up the sidewalks and disrupt the outdoor eating space, that we have a larger conversation with all of the property owners and merchants.”
But Masten and some councilors on the panel said they don’t want to wait for discussions and plans that could take months or years.
“With all due respect to the city manager, waiting six months, waiting a month, waiting three months is unacceptable,” said Jared Goodell, a local marketing consultant who said he was there representing Masten and her businesses. “Friday’s coming. And for Friday, business owners have to make payroll. And when you don’t have customers coming through the door — for whatever reason — that’s a problem.”
Goodell said Masten plans to submit to the city a petition asking for the kiosk’s removal. He said more than 50 local business owners, employees “and others experiencing a negative impact due to the parking kiosk” have signed it.
After the meeting, Masten and Goodell said there’s ample evidence the kiosk has hurt her business, including financial metrics that show a drop and irate customers ripping up parking tickets.
On one recent afternoon, Masten said, a driver pulled into a parking spot in front of her restaurant. The kiosk wasn’t working. He told off the parking attendant, according to Masten, then said he’d never come back.