It doesn’t take a long memory to recall that a surefire way to set tongues a-wagging in Keene is to float a proposal to change its downtown parking arrangements. So it’s no surprise that an Oct. 30 letter from the Keene Downtown Group asking the city to make downtown Main Street parking free during morning hours has already spurred considerable conversation.
In its letter, the downtown group points to an apparent “abundance” of unused spaces in the morning hours, which it feels “has likely diminished” parking revenue, and proposes lifting all parking fees between 8 and 11 a.m. On its face, the letter does not distinguish between weekdays and Saturdays (Sunday parking being already free), nor does it define where exactly the free parking proposal would apply, other than “on Main Street in the downtown area.” Instead, the group hopes to work with the city parking department to flesh out the proposal’s details, though it acknowledges the location of the free-parking area and the length of the free-parking hours will be determined by the parking department.
Mark Rebillard, the downtown group’s president, who authored the letter with group board member Roger Weinreich, has described the letter as “a matter of a starting point,” and, indeed, the letter emphasizes the group’s overall aim is to make downtown more inviting in the morning hours and thereby enhance downtown business and social activity. They sensibly recognize the letter as only the beginning of a discussion, because worthy as the group’s aim is, it must compete with a range of concerns that have been raised in past downtown parking deliberations. These include managing the revenue impact on the city’s parking fund so that parking costs otherwise met by the fund aren’t unduly shifted to property taxpayers, and ensuring that shoppers, visitors and other short-term parkers will in fact benefit from a lifting of fees and won’t be frustrated by downtown employees taking advantage of free Main Street parking.
The discussion would also dovetail nicely with an initiative that’s been on the city staff’s plate since the most recent downtown parking imbroglio. Last spring, the city council tacked back and forth in deliberating a proposal to remove the then-lone parking kiosk on Central Square. In ultimately approving the kiosk’s removal, the council directed staff to develop a comprehensive plan for all downtown parking, including consideration of parking time limits and hours of operation. Though it hasn’t reappeared before the council, ideally, progress has been made on developing such a plan that could inform discussions with the downtown group about the free-parking proposal.
Last week, the council referred the downtown group’s letter to its finance, organization and personnel committee, which will take up the proposal at its meeting Thursday. In considering it, the committee would do well not only to encourage staff and the downtown group to work together, but also to be guided by an earlier, contentious downtown parking proposal. In late 2011, the city replaced on each side of Main Street a stretch of meters with a kiosk. The city did so only on a trial basis, until the benefits and shortcomings of the switch could be addressed. That proved wise, as public reaction to the kiosks turned solidly negative and other problems surfaced, and the city backtracked and returned the meters in early 2012. Given the conversation the downtown group’s proposal has already spurred, some experimentation might be required before concluding whether, or with what parameters, morning free parking makes sense for downtown Keene.
The committee’s meeting is Thursday at 6:30 p.m. in City Hall, and members of the public should take the opportunity to weigh in on the proposal.