Clarence Fanto: Solutions vary for city parking issue


LENOX -- Parking problems in Pittsfield?
To a long-time-ago metro New York urban and suburban resident, the notion seems exaggerated, even laughable. But let's give the benefit of the doubt to those who feel otherwise.

The consultants who presented tentative recommendations for public discussion this past week appear to have thrown everything against the wall to see what sticks. Some proposals should be wiped away quickly; several others have staying power.

Pittsfield is a tale of two cities when it comes to parking -- on business days, with attorneys, clients and employees of a busy court system along with customers of many businesses vying for spots, preferably within a minute or two of their destination, spaces can be hard to find. However, at night and on weekends, there's plenty of room on the street and in parking lots or garages.

Anyone willing to walk five minutes (and that should be all of us who are able-bodied) will rarely have trouble finding a space. There are side streets with 3-hour parking limits, or longer. I'll keep my favorites to myself, but there are no mysteries.

A possible exception: if you're due in court and expecting a full day, you may find parking is challenging. On the occasions when I have been summoned to the courthouse (for jury duty or as a witness in a criminal case), I learned that tickets will be "taken care of" if necessary.

One proposal that should be jettisoned: daytime 50-cents-an hour parking meters on North and South Streets, with the first 30 minutes free. Nobody who has business downtown, appointments with lawyers, bankers or other professionals, or is seeking lunch, should have to be checking the time and fishing for quarters for the privilege of patronizing the increasingly vibrant central city.

Instead, as suggested by the consultants as an alternative, 90-minute free parking should be uniform during weekday business hours, with 4-hour limits, or none at all, on nights and weekends -- plenty of time for a show or film and a meal.

But parking meters or high-tech kiosks allowing credit-card payments (for 50 cents?!) are just not warranted for a city the size of Pittsfield.

Consultants Ralph DeNisco and Lisa Jacobson of Nelson/Nygaard did offer useful suggestions. Folks who work downtown should use the garages and municipal lots -- many already do, but the system of permits needs to be examined to make sure it's working as intended. How many of you have noticed permit-parking spaces go unused day after day?

When it comes to signs, yes, the more the better -- visitors, even from neighboring towns, need to be directed to available off-street parking. After more than a quarter-century living down the highway from Pittsfield, I still find the rules, regs and locations a bit confusing.

Now that the city has become a cultural and dining mecca -- Barrington Stage, the Beacon, the Colonial, the new Whitney Arts Center are jewels and the mix of restaurants is greatly improved -- visitors, especially ticket-holders from afar, need to be welcomed with plenty of easy, free parking. Privately-owned lots -- nearly 4,000 spots, who knew? -- should be opened by their civic-minded owners to the general public after hours.

A parking authority? No, not another layer of bureaucracy. But creating new spots on West Street and vicinity? Whenever possible, by all means. The consultants think there could be as many as 200 more spaces, and if so, go for it.

The online survey conducted before the draft report was presented at the Berkshire Athenaeum drew a solid response of about 1,000. The results would not surprise anyone -- half of the respondents need more than 90 minutes of parking when visiting. Nearly half would step up their visitation if parking availability is streamlined.

Pittsfield has made great strides downtown, an area perceived as a crime-infested wasteland before Mayor Jimmy Ruberto took office and made revitalization his calling card.

Free parking for longer time periods, and the lifting of most restrictions after working hours, would be the proverbial icing on the cake. Let's make sure the bakery gets the recipe just sweet enough to ensure plenty of repeat business.

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