Hartford parking study points to ‘next frontier’ in living with motor vehicles. Here is what it calls for.
When Story and Soil Coffee opened five years ago, the shop in Hartford‘s Frog Hollow neighborhood soon realized it had a marketing problem: customers had no place to park near its Capitol Avenue storefront.
Workers employed in the area would snag spots curbside and park their cars there all day.
“It would really, really hamper our ability to serve customers because there were no spots for them to pop in to grab a coffee and pop out,” shop co-owner Sarah McCoy said.
McCoy and her partners pushed for — and won — the addition of striped parking spots and metered parking that opened up spaces for their customers.
The addition of on-street parking that would foster storefront businesses like the coffee shop is among the recommendations of a recent study of parking commissioned by the city and the Hartford Parking Authority, which oversees publicly-managed parking.
As the city seeks to regain momentum behind revitalization in the aftermath of the pandemic, the study, led by THA Consulting of Blue Bell, PA, makes the assertion that the city may have to replace and even add to the parking that it has already as redevelopment unfolds in the coming years.
The suggestion that the city needs more parking is surprising — even a bit shocking — given Hartford has 80% more parking than cities of similar size, according to one study by the University of Connecticut. And the city’s so-called “parking craters” — parking lots created when buildings were demolished for redevelopment projects that were then scrapped — often are derided for pocking the cityscape.
However, the city has won praise for eliminating minimum parking requirements citywide for new projects, in hopes of both spurring redevelopment and shifting dependence away from cars in favor of mass transit.
But that transition is coming slower than other cities, the study notes, so the report recommends keeping a close watch on parking. City officials say the idea is to not create more asphalt, just use what already exists in a different way.
“The challenge that we have is that we’re not a New York City or an L.A.,” Erin Howard, the city’s director of economic development, said. “We’re a small city. And so, as a small city, even though we want to promote alternative modes of transportation, the reality is we still have a commuter downtown and so we are still very dependent on the vehicle.”
Howard said one of the first questions businesses ask when considering a move to downtown are about the parking options.
A delicate balance must be struck between creating the right type of parking that supports development but also encourages building on surface lots throughout the city, Howard said.
The study points to how little control the city has over parking because it owns and manages just a sliver of the spaces, leaving it with limited power to drive pricing and use parking to influence future development.
In downtown, the parking authority said it oversees 2,380 off-street parking spots, including 800 at the Rensselaer campus on Windsor Street, and 1,800 on the street. Together, that represents just 13.5% of the parking in the downtown area.
Included in those numbers is the authority’s lease last year of the garage and surface lot on the nearby Rensselaer campus. The lease sought to prepare for the eventual loss of parking for Dunkin’ Park in the lots around the city’s minor league ballpark. Those lots are planned for redevelopment, with the first phase now completed. The Rensselaer campus is now for sale.
But the study also says the parking authority can build on that clout. While it may be more difficult to reach agreements with major parking lot operators, there is the option of working with owners of private lots throughout the city that were initially intended to provide parking to just one building.
“If there is asphalt already there, there is lighting already there, the stripes are already there, why not try to utilize it in a different way?” Armindo “Mingo” Gomes, the parking authority’s chief executive officer, said.
As an example, a church may only use its lot a few times a week. A possible agreement could include leasing spaces for public use and splitting the revenue, Gomes said. Perhaps there could be a tax incentive for properties that aren’t tax exempt like churches, Gomes said.
“I maintain it,” Gomes said. “Now, they wouldn’t have to plow it, sand it. That’s really the next frontier that we have so we can make sure there is ample parking for at least the next couple of decades.”
Alan Lazowski, founder, chairman and chief executive of Hartford-based LAZ Parking, a global parking company and among the largest in Hartford, declined to comment. Lazowski said he still needs to review the study’s findings.
Seeking out alternate uses for existing parking venues could mean using parking garages in different ways or building new ones in strategic locations that can accommodate office workers during the day and a growing number of residents in new housing developments, particularly downtown, in the evenings.
Michael W. Freimuth, executive director of the Capital Region Development Authority, the quasi-public state agency, said one example is the Morgan Street Garage. The 2,300-space, state-owned garage was nearly full during the day prior to the pandemic but virtually empty most evenings, Freimuth said.
In the last decade, the quasi-public CRDA has helped fund the addition of more than 2,000 units of housing in and around downtown.
“So that would be prime time for residential use, right?” Freimuth said. “You’re going to have garages that are going to do double duty and be more smartly used or operated by loading in multiple uses for different times of day.”
Concern for small business
The pandemic cut deeply into the numbers of office workers commuting into the city, as employers shifted large cross-sections of the employees to working from home. As a result, some major employers in downtown Hartford — reflecting nationwide trends — slashed the amount of office space they will need in the future.
Most experts say they expect a recovery of leasing and a return to the office, but when — and to what extent — isn’t known.
That makes planning for future parking needs difficult. But the issue of expanding on-street parking could be vital now to spurring on businesses in downtown and in the city’s neighborhoods in the aftermath.
The long-sought revitalization of downtown’s Pratt Street is one example. The street is expected to see an increasing number of restaurants, bars and other shops open this summer replacing vacant storefronts, thanks to a city grant program drawing on federal pandemic aid.
Certainly, downtown residents could walk to Pratt. But the street’s success also will hinge on it becoming a destination from outside downtown and the city, in many cases requiring visitors to drive and park.
“As far as parking is concerned, the concern is for the small business that rely on short-term parking,” said David Griggs, chief executive of the MetroHartford Alliance, the region’s chamber of commerce. “A daily rate is great — park and walk away and go to your job and come back later — but if you are stopping in for lunch or coffee or something like that, the study calls out that we don’t have enough good options for that parking.”
Griggs said, “That’s a real concern for the businesses because we need them to stay open. We need them to prosper.”
In 2019, the parking authority doubled the hourly rate on meters from $1 to $2 in the heart of downtown to encourage more turnover in on-street spaces. The move met with success discouraging “all day parkers.” During the pandemic, the authority worked with restaurants to establish dedicated spaces for food delivery services such as Uber Eats and DoorDash that saw explosive growth, Gomes said.
The parking study recommends that strategies to encourage more on-street parking need to paired with stepped up enforcement of parking time limits.
In downtown, however, there is little opportunity for expansion beyond the 1,800 on-street spaces that now exist, Gomes said. He estimates that there could be up to another 150 but that would be the upper limit. There could be options on Church Street, High Street and streets off Pearl Street. In some cases, the study recommended reducing the length of turning lanes.
More options may exist in the neighborhoods. For instance, the authority is now examining the potential for creating striped parking stalls along the three-mile stretch along Albany Avenue from Main Street to Homestead Avenue in the North End. Commercial areas would have loading zones and handicap-only parking to accommodate merchants, Gomes said. The authority has not yet determined how many spaces might be added, but any change would be on a trial basis, Gomes said.
In Frog Hollow, Story and Soil’s McCoy says there was some “transitional enforcement” with the new parking.
“But once that got squared away, people got accustomed to paying for parking through the app or through the meters,” McCoy said. “And there was some security with that, knowing, like, OK, I’m good. I have my spot. I can sit in the coffee shop for an hour and have a meeting, or pop into one of the 20-minute spots, grab a coffee and keep on going. So that was a big help.”
Kenneth R. Gosselin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.