EAST GREENWICH—The town council discussed Monday the immediate need for action relating to parking availability and valet practices on Main Street and throughout the downtown area. The town’s planning director, Lisa Bourbonnais, delivered a presentation to the council summarizing the results of an October joint meeting between the planning and zoning boards, which found that a new parking study and a new valet ordnance were immediately needed to address a shortage of adequate space.
“The point of the presentation is to give context to, historically, how we got into this parking crunch that we all feel now,” Bourbonnais said.
Bourbonnais highlighted how the town hired Pare Engineering to conduct a formal study on the parking situation in the town in 2005, following the launching of a formal revitalization program in 1995 meant to address a downtown characterized by persistent commercial vacancies and crumbling infrastructure after years of economic wane. Since the revitalization effort was launched, and the local economy began to rebound, Main Street and the surrounding downtown area became ideal for both commercial and residential purposes and began to be defined by numerous restaurants. Additionally, policies limiting the amount of commercial space to be used by restaurants and the proliferation of high-density housing units through the area have served to quickly intensify the struggle for adequate parking to serve both residential and commercial needs.
It is this domination of the commercial space by high capacity service-oriented businesses that is causing a key planning headache now, whereas two and a half decades ago there would have been more low-traffic retail space to break up the crush. Those sorts of businesses have long since left East Greenwich, however, and according to Bourbonnais, are not likely to come back soon.
“Some of you remember the time when we had a really vibrant retail presence on Main Street. Retail is dead now,” Bourbonnais said. “It died in the nineties because the economy was poor and it’s dying now because of the online retail competition.”
“In many cases, where those retail spaces and stores were housed, became coffee shops. This sounds inconsequential, but it opened a huge loophole,” Bourbonnais continued. “Once they got a food license it became very easy to get a liquor license and this happened in a lot of places. And it completely changed the character of downtown.”
One of the ways in which that character changed was in the relationship between business owners and residents based on the timeframe of the business’ hours. Whereas retail shops and cafes typically operate while residents in the same building are themselves at work, bars operate prime hours starting when most people are just getting home and go on through the night. This dichotomy has created no shortage of hardship in terms of parking availability and noise in areas such as downtown, which is characterized by mixed residential and commercial usage.
The 2005 Pare study found that shop owners and employees parking in front of their establishments presented a real frustration to increasing parking availability and served to occupy spaces over extended periods of time, and recommended a trolley service. Ultimately, residents were encouraged to ride share and efforts were made to create better signage and perform outreach to merchants about employee parking best practices. Pare did not, however, make any meaningful suggestions as to how to alleviate the issue, as the firm viewed the problem as being one of perception rather than reality. That has changed.
“We launched the revitalization program in 1995 and it was successful. Ten years later we had issues. We were victims of our own success,” Bourbonnais said. “All that revitalization did bring problems, especially parking problems.”
Those problems have only increased. Indeed, since 2014, complaints regarding parking have steadily intensified from both visitors and shop owners alike, and the steady takeover of Main Street by valet services has led to a marked tension among residents. This in part owes to the largely unimpeded expansion of eateries and businesses with liquor licenses, which have increased downtown from 14 establishments in 2005 to 32 establishments in 2018. As of 2019, it is estimated that the downtown area has a deficit of 827 parking spaces, as the current number of spaces on Main Street, side streets and lots is currently at 1,398, though the total parking required for the current establishments under local zoning policy is 2,225.
Further complexifying the issue are the myriad nuances of policy and enforcement issues of side streets coming off of Main Street. One such example is the fact that overnight parking is not allowed on some streets. It was an issue brought to the council’s attention on Monday by a resident and apartment owner who expressed frustration with the fact that the town recently began enforcing an ordnance that no overnight parking is allowed on the north side of King Street. Residents in the area, who mostly live on small historic lots without parking, require spaces for their vehicles that are often gobbled up by employees of establishments such as Blu on the Water during the summer months, and losing the ability to park on one side of the street could serve to both increase frustration and lower property values.
“Parking has now become a very prominent issue,” town council president Mark Schwager said.
The town council will return with proposed language for a new ordnance to better regulate the use of valet parking and allot public parking in the coming weeks. It is expected to propose a change to the policy of parking on the north side of King Street at its next meeting, after which the wording will have to be approved over the course of three meetings to be accepted.