Dover officials favor parking garage to spark revitalization

Metered parking lot off North Bradford Street in downtown Dover. Delaware State News/Marc Clery

DOVER — The only new traffic signs that Dover Mayor Robin Christiansen and City Council President Tim Slavin want to pay for are those that would direct motorists to a downtown parking garage.

“Just like we build libraries and just like we build police stations, it’s an obligation of the city government to provide this (parking garage) for the infrastructure downtown and I think we need to get to it,” President Slavin said.

Mayor Christiansen agreed, saying, “I would rather spend the money that we’re going to put into signs toward the future of downtown Dover and the future of the city in a parking garage and affordable parking.”

The views shared by the pair of city leaders were in stark contrast to recommendations made by a Downtown Dover Parking Study that was led by Philadelphia-based Langan Engineering and Environmental Service Inc. and was presented to the city’s Safety Advisory and Transportation Committee at City Hall on Tuesday night.

Spencer Finch, of Langan Engineering, presented the parking study, which was an initiative of the city of Dover, the Dover/Kent County Metropolitan Planning Organization and the Downtown Dover Partnership. It took two years to complete and cost $58,000.

“The parking (situation in Dover) was not easy to understand, whether it was where to go or in relation to the cost,” Mr. Finch said. “There’s a huge gap in the different parking rates (at the various lots).”

Mr. Finch said the study recommended better wayfinding and signage to parking in the city, a revised parking rate structure, improved physical infrastructure — including streetscape, landscape, lighting, security cameras, new pocket parks that would connect walkways and new gateways to downtown — enhanced public engagement and marketing of historic downtown Dover as a destination.

He added that the available 1,119 public parking spaces downtown, both on-street and off-street, were adequate for the demand.

“Dover’s on its way to becoming a vital destination and a great place to be, to work, live and play,” Mr. Finch said. “There’s lot of good things that we’ve seen happen in Dover … but the parking is still an issue. It was a huge issue 10, 15, 20 years ago and still is — and most of it is just confusion.

“If we can just help make wayfinding a little bit easier, make the pricing a little bit easier, and then really look at the streetscape, we can build on these changes and really make this a destination.”

The parking study also included three public meetings and an online survey that drew tepid response from the community. A total of 65 people attended the meetings while only eight individuals participated in the online survey.

Confusion reigns with parking

Mr. Finch said that his organization found that parking confusion in Dover is caused by too many types of lots and pricing fees.

Of the 1,119 available spaces, 37 percent (394 spaces) are permit spaces or reserved for staff or tenants; 32 percent (346 spaces) are free two-hour parking spots; 28 percent (302 spaces) are basically free on-street parking spots (where there is no sign posted); 3 percent (32 spaces) are metered off-street spaces, costing 25 cents per hour up to a maximum of $1 daily; 3 percent (32 spaces) are ADA spaces; 1 percent (11 spaces) are free 30-minute spaces and 0.2 percent (2 spaces) are free 15-minute spaces.

Mr. Finch added that clear and concise signage could help with the confusion issues but would not help with the general feeling of personal safety when customers are parking in a downtown lot.

Garage logical answer

President Slavin did not want to hear about erecting signs. He said building a vertical parking structure is the logical answer to solving the parking issues downtown.

“Thank you for your work on this, I don’t mean to demean it, but this is exactly the problem (looking at a confusing map of available parking downtown). It makes sense to no one,” Mr. Slavin said. “We can count spaces and we can do a tabletop exercise, if we move this checker here and move that checker there, but at the end of the day we end up with that (confusion).

“It’s also, it wasn’t the purview of the study, but it’s also another issue that I think is really critical and that is that we’re taking some of our most valuable real estate from an economic development perspective and dedicating it to surface parking, which is sometimes achieving 60 percent capacity.”

While Mr. Slavin acknowledged he was going against the recommendations of the study, he said a parking garage just makes sense.

“If we build a vertical parking garage, as I believe we should, and have that as our solution, we could then open up those properties for development and attract new businesses in that require more spaces,” said Mr. Slavin. “The benefit of it was that we’ve got more rentable property downtown and the parking garage long-term would probably pay for itself two times over on a payback period.

“You’re going to hear this from me again and again and again. I really don’t want to be 80-years-old coming in here for the open-forum session saying, ‘Please build a parking garage downtown,’ but I will until we see one.”

Mayor Christiansen joined Mr. Slavin in support of a parking garage.

“I am far from being an expert, but I can tell you that from having memories of being 5-years-old in downtown Dover … and parking was an issue then. It was an issue when I was first elected to council at age 32 and here we are, I’m a little bit older than 32, and it’s still an issue.

“I think we’re going to have to be unique and dynamic in our solution. If we look down the street at Bayhealth, forever and ever, Bayhealth as an entity had issues with parking. They grabbed the bull by the horns and their parking issue seems to have disappeared, although they do still have quite a bit of surface parking, but the parking garage works out very well.”

Other city representatives were hesitant to sweep the report aside at the Council Committee of the Whole meeting.

“I thought your report was terrific,” City Councilman Fred Neil said to Mr. Finch. “I thought it was thorough and I saw where the synergy lies. I see where we can connect the dots and I’m looking forward to trying to execute whatever we can from that report.

Safety Advisory and Transportation Committee member William Garfinkel was also impressed with the report, saying “I read every word.”

“If we don’t follow the recommendations here then we get what we got,” he said, “but if we follow the recommendations we’ll draw more people,
consumers, to downtown which then would draw more people who want to develop downtown.”

Data defeats garage need

Mr. Finch said the data from the study shows that a parking garage is not necessary at this time.

The parking report stated, “This analysis was especially important in light of the longstanding public discussion in Dover that a parking garage would be the solution.

“If this were the first option taken to address the parking issues, it would likely burden the city with significant debt to fund construction, while it would likely not operate significantly dissimilar from some of the existing parking lots which are currently half-full.”

Among the current problems with parking downtown is that while an existing parking lease program has been provided to some key businesses that were attracted downtown, the current configuration of permit spaces effectively creates an inner ring of parking that is available only to permit holders (and might thus sit idle), while desired customers and visitors have to seek out other options further away.

He also noted that “parking surfers” — people who move their cars around during the day to avoid a parking fee — and staff occupy many of the prime free, two-hour parking spots that should instead be dedicated to visitors and customers.

Mr. Finch also said perception can differ from reality, as well.

He said the study showed the overall peak occupancy of on-street parking did not exceed 75 percent and, of the off-street parking lots, did not exceed 63 percent.

When adjusted for time of day and type of use, the overall parking occupancy never exceeded 60 percent, noting the typical targets for efficient use without overcrowding typically are 85 percent occupancy for on-street parking and 90 percent for off-street parking.

Solutions spark revitalization?

The parking study did note the expressed parking needs for the Schwartz Center for the Arts, which was forced to close its doors last summer.

The report stated, “This downtown Dover institution had a critical need to raise revenue by hosting additional small- and medium-scale events, especially during weekday business hours.

“However, the institution had no dedicated parking and thus could not accommodate many of this type of event. Unfortunately, the center was forced to shut down as this study was being conducted, due to insufficient revenues.”

City Planner Dave Hugg said a parking garage would contribute greatly toward possibly bringing the Schwartz Center back to life as well as finding a tenant for the vacant property at the corner of Loockerman and State streets.

“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. “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.”

Mayor Christiansen offered up six words in his support for a proposed parking garage — “Build it, and they will come.”

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