Merchants divided on Ellicott City parking program

Some fear new charges will hurt business; others see opportunity

October 11, 2012|By Arthur Hirsch, The Baltimore Sun | By Arthur Hirsch, The Baltimore Sun

Ed Williams, the apron-wearing proprietor of the Mumble and Squeak Toy Shoppe on Ellicott City's Main Street, has for decades heard arguments about downtown parking. It's a multiheaded beast — studied often, discussed ad nauseam and yet unsettled — but he figures he can point out what he considers the essence of the problem quickly by stepping out of his store on a bright October weekday afternoon.

Note the white Chevy parked in front of his shop, he says, and across the street the white van and another car up the street — all belonging not to customers but to the owners of local businesses. This is to say nothing of the odd proliferation of handicapped-parking hangtags among people who work on Main Street, allowing them to occupy a street space all day, avoid the two-hour daytime limit and take spots that might otherwise be used by visitors.

"There is a huge selfishness problem in this parking," says Williams, referring to some fellow business owners who he feels should park in lots off Main Street. That said, he is still among some 60 merchants who have signed a petition opposing the county's plan for parking in Historic Ellicott City, many of whom plan to meet Wednesday evening with the official in charge of the project that will soon install meters, raise some parking fees and charge for parking that is now free on Main Street and Maryland Avenue, off the lower end of Main.

The meeting at the George Howard Building with Steve Lafferty of the Department of Planning and Zoning is for information only. The decisions have been made, the contracts were signed in June and the new equipment is expected to be installed in the next few weeks to manage nearly 600 parking spaces: about 100 on the street, the rest in six lots, Lafferty said.

Metered spaces for $1 an hour will be added on Main Street and Maryland Avenue. In the parking lots, more than two-thirds of the spaces are free and will remain so. Those that now go for 50 cents an hour will stay at that rate, and the 25-cent spaces will rise to 50 cents.

No new charges will go into effect until after January, Lafferty says.

Sara Arditti, co-owner of the Still Life Gallery on Main Street and petition organizer, says the project — featuring a high-tech system that includes sensors installed in the pavement and a mobile app showing available parking — is a poor use of public money and will drive away business.

"It will generally cut down on the amount of people who will come here," says Arditti, who with husband, David Dempster, moved to Ellicott City from Los Angeles in the spring to open the art gallery. "It will annoy people and inconvenience them, and we don't want to do that to our customers."

Arditti acknowledges that she has no evidence to show that charging $1 an hour for on-street parking that is now free would depress commerce, but she says it stands to reason, as nearby shopping areas offer free parking. She says meters that once stood along Main Street in the 1970s were removed for that reason. Arditti says most Main Street business owners object to the parking project, though no formal opinion survey has been taken.

Some clearly support it, some don't and some land in between — in keeping with the tradition of independent-minded Ellicott City shopkeepers agreeing on very little, says Williams, who has been in business for 20 years.

Williams has mixed feelings about the plan, which is expected to cost about $360,000 the first year and up to $1 million over four years. He thinks it's too expensive and too elaborate.

"I can go either way with parking meters; it could be a good management tool," Williams says. "What I don't understand is the sensors and the app. ... It seems like a high-tech solution for a low-tech town."

Len Berkowitz, owner of the Great Panes stained-glass shop on Main Street, wonders whether the expense makes sense.

"I would rather they spent that money advertising Ellicott City and cleaning it up and repairing it," says Berkowitz, whose shop has been on Main Street for 33 years, in two locations.

Lissa Bounds, who owns Ellicott Interiors, agrees that the new charge for Main Street parking will discourage customers. She says the county administration's practices are inconsistent with its professed support of Historic Ellicott City.

"They couldn't do more to hurt us and destroy us as a merchant community if they tried," says Bounds.

But Karen Besson, owner of Art and Artisan on Main Street, finds the argument a bit overheated.

"I just think there's a huge overreaction," Besson says. "I don't think it's that controversial."

While she says she's not happy about the parking project, "if we're going to have paid parking in town, we need to have it done right. This is a step in the right direction."

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