Dover officials see need for parking garage

 

Cars are parked along Loockerman Street in downtown Dover. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

DOVER — It appears as if city of Dover officials are beginning to think vertically when it comes to addressing the often-times confusing parking situation in the downtown area.

Dover Mayor Robin R. Christiansen recently said that he and City Planner Dave Hugg have been in discussions with several entities in hopes of bringing a multi-level parking facility downtown.

“The parking study that was conducted by the Dover/Kent County MPO (Metropolitan Planning Organization last year) did not, at first, contain the four-letter word that I told them I wanted to see in there — and that was ‘parking garage,’ Mayor Christiansen said with a laugh.

“I think it’s been modified now from its draft form but (a parking garage) is something that I concur with the Downtown Dover Partnership that we need to actively pursue.”

The Dover/Kent County MPO, along with the Downtown Dover Partnership, studied the parking situation in areas that included 10 focus blocks, including Loockerman Street, Bradford Street, South Governor’s Avenue, as well as five city lots (Bradford Street, North Street, Minor Street, Loockerman Way and Governors Avenue).

The four major questions that the Kent County MPO was looking for answers were: Is there enough parking? How should the city communicate available parking? Is the current fee structure adequate? Is a parking garage warranted?

The parking study, which was conducted by Langan Engineering of Philadelphia, found that the combined 1,800 public and private parking spots in the downtown area are an adequate amount for a city the size of Dover.

The study also revealed that the peak rate for on-street parking is 75 percent, which occurs during the lunch hour, and other than that, the lots never approach capacity.

While the parking study concluded that the time wasn’t right for a parking garage, Mr. Hugg and Mayor Christiansen believe otherwise.

“I think a parking garage would solve a lot of problems that downtown Dover businesses are facing and would give people a safe environment with which to park their cars,” Mr. Hugg said at a recent city council meeting. “I believe a parking garage is something that the city needs to pursue if it is going to experience a revitalization of the downtown area.”

Currently, a hodgepodge of parking options, ranging from free two-hour parking to metered and permit parking spaces, can make parking downtown confusing — and a headache — for shoppers, diners and business owners.

Safety is also a concern.

“I’ve had the experience living there and the experience of being a business owner downtown,” said Sam Chick, who operates the Puffers Smoke Vape Lounge on Loockerman Street. “A parking garage is needed and I hope this year is the year that action takes place on that.”

While all the businesses downtown might benefit from the construction of a parking garage, a potential restaurant/lounge tenant at the old Loockerman Exchange location at the corner of Loockerman and State Street, as well as the Schwartz Center for the Arts, could be among the biggest beneficiaries.

Officials from the Schwartz Center, which closed its doors last summer, had told city officials that they felt limited to hosting events during the day because people cannot park within a reasonable distance.

Last year, Dover City Council President Timothy Slavin said he has been involved in downtown parking issues for a long time.

He said there appears to be plenty of parking, but not the kind of parking that would indicate to visitors that they are comfortable and secure.

“A visitor may arrive at Disney World 20 miles before they park their car, but the signage is designed to create confidence that they do not have to worry anymore and the signs will take them exactly where they need to go,” he said.

Council President Slavin added that a vertical parking garage in Dover would go a long way toward establishing that kind of confidence for visitors in knowing where they could park.

“What is different now than it was 10 years ago is that the DDP has a number of ground surface areas that could be built upon,” he said. He noted it would be worthwhile to look at a public/private partnership for that kind of structure.

Erik Mabus, owner and pharmacist at Bayard Pharmacy on Loockerman Street, believes that a parking garage would help attract new businesses and customers along the Loockerman Street corridor.

While he would like to see a parking garage be built, he admits that he doesn’t see it as a pressing matter for downtown.

“There will be days when I’ll walk out front (of the pharmacy) and I’ll look up and down the street and there will be six spots open,” Mr. Mabus said, “and there’s days when they’re full … so I think you have to know where to look and be willing to walk a block.

“I think that part is the psychological part. If people have to walk a block and maybe go around a corner it seems a lot further, but if they park at a Walmart and they’re way at the end, they might walk two blocks just to get into the building.”

City Councilman Fred Neil wouldn’t mind seeing a parking garage get built, but in case it doesn’t happen he supports an effort to improve signage to make it easier for people to get to the downtown parking lots.

“It’s important for people to know where parking is and to be comfortable with it if downtown is to be redeveloped, especially in regard to tourism and the need to direct people to the quaint attractions of Dover, such as The Green and museums,” Councilman Neil said.

Mr. Mabus agreed with the councilman on the need to clear up the confusion downtown.

“Everybody believes it’s really hard to find a spot but there are lots. There’s free parking, there’s street parking,” Mr. Mabus said. “I think maybe it’s an education issue, helping people realize where parking is that’s not required to have permits because there are a lot of spots that are permit only.

“I think in the long run if we really wanted to build up downtown a parking garage would be a great asset to have to maybe encourage some new businesses to come downtown.”

As for the construction of a parking garage, Mayor Christiansen echoes those voices in the baseball-themed movie “Field of Dreams” — “Build it … and they will come.”

Delaware State News staff writer Mike Finney can be reached at mfinney@newszap.com.

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