Downtown Dover parking woes eyed: Public meeting today to seek improvement

DOVER — Erik Mabus, owner and pharmacist at Bayard Pharmacy on Loockerman Street, believes the perception of a parking problem in downtown Dover is different from reality.

However, upon further examining the issue, he added that it probably would be beneficial for the city of Dover to study building a parking garage somewhere downtown. A parking garage, he believes, would help attract new businesses and customers.

“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.”

Susan Bulley, who has been an employee at Forney’s Too on Loockerman Street for 17 years, is another who thinks there is plenty of available parking downtown.

Loockerman Street looking west from State Street in downtown Dover. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

“I don’t think (parking) is a problem,” she said. “But some of our customers still think that they need more parking.

“Most of the time I suggest parking on Bradford Street. That seems to be one of the easiest places to find a parking spot. Now, there is a two-hour limit there during the day, but that should allow plenty of time for people to get done what they need to.”

Dover/Kent County MPO seeking improvements

Officials from the Dover/Kent County Metropolitan Planning Organization have been studying several concerns to try to improve the parking experience in downtown Dover.

Rich Vetter, executive director of the Dover/Kent County MPO, invites the community to come to a meeting at the Dover Public Library at 35 Loockerman Plaza today from 4 until 7 p.m. to offer their ideas on improving parking downtown.

Loockerman Street looking east from State Street in downtown Dover. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

The four major questions that he and his staff are looking for answers are: Is there enough parking? How should the city communicate available parking? Is the current fee structure adequate? Is a parking garage warranted?

Mr. Vetter told Dover City Council at a February meeting the MPO has been looking at the parking situation in areas that include 10 focus blocks, including Loockerman Street, Bradford Street, South Governor’s Avenue, as well as five city lots.

The MPO has a 10-member steering committee that consists of residents, business owners, and agency or city staff that would help to formulate recommendations regarding the parking study.

The Downtown Dover Partnership also has a Parking Committee and will also be taking part in the study, which Mr. Vetter hopes to have complete this summer.

Changes make parking a moving target

Mr. Vetter said a plan to build two mixed-use buildings at Loockerman Way — the plaza where the farmer’s market operates from spring until fall — could lead to a loss of parking spots in the lot on North Street.

He added there could also be a new demand for parking if the former Acme site on Governor’s Avenue across from the Dover Fire Department is redeveloped. He said those changes will be incorporated in the study and included in the analysis.

Mr. Vetter said the city of Dover could take advantage of existing technology and install “smart meters” such as the ones at Rehoboth Beach, where customers could pay for parking with their cell phones.

There is also the potential for downtown customers to find empty spaces via a possible smartphone app.

“That kind of technology could be used to the city’s and the community’s advantage,” Mr. Vetter said.

Improved signage needed?

It seems as if city leaders and business owners downtown are in agreement that clearer signage to will direct visitors to the area’s parking lots are needed.

“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.”

City Councilman Fred Neil suggested that Mr. Vetter and the Dover/Kent County MPO look at what some successful downtowns have done to improve signage to get to their 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. “This parking study is phenomenal and is important to the growth of the city of Dover.”

The legend of the parking garage continues

There has been talk about the construction of a parking garage downtown for at least a decade, probably longer, though it has never come to fruition.

Mr. Mabus said a strategically placed and secure new parking garage couldn’t hurt.

“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,” he said. “I think it would be a nice plus for the downtown to have, but I don’t think it’s necessary at the moment.”

While all of 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 see the greatest benefit.

Mr. Vetter said officials from the Schwartz Center expressed to him that they felt limited to host events during the day because people cannot park within a reasonable distance.

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.

Mr. Vetter assured Mr. Slavin that a possible garage was part of the scope of the Kent County/Dover MPO’s downtown parking study.

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