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  • Robert Lathers

Downtown Growth Brings Parking Frustrations – Especially for Seniors

There is no doubt about it, Downtown Portland is on the brink of a renaissance. The Downtown Development Authority and DDA Director Tina Conner Wellman have done an outstanding job.

Portland is booming. Entrepreneur business owner Tim Fuller is working diligently on restoring five buildings on the west side of Kent Street and has already completed a dance studio, The Opera Block Academy of Dance, that is up and running with 150 participants under the direction of Jeney Vroman and a Tanning Salon. Both are beautifully designed state-of-art facilities. Fuller is planning to open a bakery in 2020 and Gather, a new restaurant, the following year. Then finally an event center, upstairs of these businesses, that will be able to accommodate crowds of up to 600 people.

Down the street, where the Blue Mason Jar recently vacated, work has begun on the space where the Red Tomato is scheduled to move to sometime next year. Courageous Coffee continues to inch towards an opening right around the corner on Bridge Street. “The Port”, a new wine tasting business, just opened on the east side of the street. With a possible new police station in discussion for a downtown location and other businesses looking at downtown opportunities as well as street and bridge projects tentatively planned on Grand River and a potential splash pad at Powers Park, its simply dizzying.

Success however is going to come with a big challenge. Where is everybody going to park? And for how long? That is why the City has put in place a renewed emphasis on two-hour parking limits. New signs have recently been installed on Kent and Bridge Street and enforcement will begin in the next couple of weeks. Portland Police Chief Star Thomas has been busy visiting local businesses to give friendly education to them about the upcoming parking enforcement initiative. Parking tickets for violators will cost $10. However, if somebody parks in one of the few handicapped spots that are available without a handicapped parking permit, regardless for how long, it is going to cost a whole lot more. That’s because, according to Chief Thomas, it’s a “State Civil Infraction” and violators will experience a steep court fine.

So, where is everyone going to park? Tim Fuller told the Beacon, “We have to find other solutions to what we currently have. It’s in my business plan to develop a shuttle service from off-sight parking when we start hosting large events here.” Fuller also thinks that the one-way designation of Bridge Street between Kent and Water Street should be turned around to route cars west off Kent St to currently underutilized parking on Canal, Water and W. Bridge Streets. That would end the short cut that hundreds of cars now use every day over the Bridge to circumvent Grand River’s traffic lights. Standing on the corner of Bridge and Kent one day last week studying traffic with Fuller makes that suggestion seem like a really good idea. City Manager, Tutt Gorman, agrees it’s one possible idea but cautions that it needs more study and planning.

The Portland Area Senior Center, known officially as the Portland Area Service Group (PSAG) has its own ideas about parking, and they showed up in force at a recent City Council Meeting to present a petition signed by over thirty of their members. They were upset about not being included in the process that resulted in the plan to aggressively limit parking to two hours on Kent Street, where they have been located for the past 45 years. Julie Dumas, President of the PASG Board, stated that they are disappointed that they were not approached before the resolution reinstating 2-hour parking in the Downtown was passed by City Council as they have many members who regularly visit the Senior Center and stay for periods of time longer than 2 hours and/or have difficulty walking long distances.

Tom Simmons, a member of PSAG shared with the Council that there are: about 5 participants that are in the 90-year-old age range; about 20 participants in the 80-year-old age range; and about 20 who are in their 70’s. Less than 20% might have a handicapped permit according to Simmons. Speaking on behalf of PSAG, Simmons suggested that the City designate four additional handicap parking spots in front of PSAG’s building at 144 Kent Street and to not ticket anyone with a handicap permit regardless of where they are parked.

Julie Ridenour, another member of PASG, also spoke against the two-hour parking limit and told the Council, “I’m not sure you guys have thought this through”.

Mayor Jim Barnes, speaking for the Council, assured the PSAG representatives that no disrespect was intended and that the goal of the City is to be proactive and anticipate upcoming changes to Downtown Portland.

Becky Bates, who has been the Director of PSAG for the past seven years, told the Beacon following the Council meeting, “We are more effected than anybody. Should we not have been involved?” According to Bates an average of about thirty people a day use PSAG facilities between 8AM-5PM. She shared a story of a 94-year-old participant who parked her car last week and walked over a block to PSAG in order to avoid parking on Kent Street for fear of a ticket. “She comes in once a week to play cards”, Bates shared, “but she told me that it was a long walk and that if this parking situation remains as it is that she probably won’t come back anymore.”

City Manager, Tutt Gorman shared with the Beacon that he has met with the City’s engineers and they are exploring the possibility of perhaps two handicap parking spots. “But, that it’s not a done deal!”, he warned. Tim Fuller, whose properties are next door to PSAG, said that he would have no problem with two handicapped spots being designated in front of the PSAG building. “But,” he added, “anyone with a handicap permit will be able to use those spots. Including anyone patronizing downtown businesses. So, its not a real solution” It gets even more complicated when designating handicap parking spots on a public street. A traffic engineer who works in the Metro Detroit area told the Beacon in a recent phone interview that if the City decides to designate handicap parking spots on a public street then they must comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Two Detroit area communities are currently being sued because they designated handicap parking on city streets without making structural changes that accommodated potential users of the parking. Ironically, there are no Federal or State laws that require public street handicap parking spots. Current laws only apply to off street parking lots. So, Cities are “incentivized to do nothing on public streets”, according to the engineer.

Portland Police Chief Star Thomas, whose department will be directed to ticket parking violators, told the Beacon that they do not anticipate any significant resistance to the new ordinance. She also shared that cars with Handicap permits will not be ticketed as they are protected by current State Law.

Adequate parking certainly looks to be a challenge for Downtown development projects in cities everywhere. It’s a problem inherent with successful revitalization. Perhaps us Portlanders can take some comfort in the words of world-renowned city planner and urban designer, Allan Jacobs, Professor Emeritus at University of California at Berkeley, “No great city has ever been known for its abundant supply of parking”. Parking shortages are a problem many communities envy and wish they had.

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