Our Opinion: Assessing the big parking picture

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The debate over downtown parking in Pittsfield did not begin with the invention of the automobile, even though it may seem that way. The next step in this long-running saga may be a comprehensive look at all of the non-moving parts in the downtown parking equation.

By a vote of 8-3 Tuesday night, the City Council voted against extending free parking at the new Summer Street lot beyond the current first 30 minutes. Berkshire Nautilus owner Jim Ramondetta had complained to the City Council that his customers were used to parking for free on the lower level of the now demolished parking garage on Summer Street and he feared that paid parking would hurt his business. The discussion of the Summer Street lot triggered a debate about parking throughout the city's downtown area, including the controversial kiosk system introduced in 2017.

It was apparent that if the City Council approved free parking in the Summer Street lot it would have opened up a Pandora's Box and advocates for free parking all around the city would have come leaping out. Lot parking in Pittsfield is 50 cents an hour and street parking is $1 an hour, modest prices that should not discourage anyone from coming downtown. Paid parking should benefit businesses by occasionally freeing up choice spots that would otherwise be filled for hours by employees and people with extended business downtown.

Before taking up the Summer Street lot issue, councilors heard from Jesse Cook-Dubin, board president for Downtown Pittsfield Inc., who asked them not to open the parking Pandora's Box. He proposed that the Council reconvene its parking committee to assess the city's parking situation holistically, and offered the help of his organization in doing so. This is a good idea that would give the city a base to build upon as it addresses parking issues in the years ahead.

Paid parking is here to stay in Pittsfield and so are the parking kiosks that evidently frustrate many. An overview by the parking committee should include exploring ways to make the kiosks simpler to use. While users of the parking app have attested to its ease of usage, aging Pittsfield and Berkshire County do not have an app-friendly demographic. The 20 cent user fee for the app discriminates against those who have made the effort to use the system in the way the city encourages. It is not clear why such a compact downtown parking area is divided into three parking zones but if the city finds this necessary it must make the zones more visible. Small letters in the corner of a sign aren't enough. There are also anecdotal glitches to address, such as receiving a ticket for overtime parking and arriving at City Hall to resolve the ticket before the time to park had actually elapsed.

While the debate over downtown parking in Pittsfield may never end, it should at least move forward constructively. An assessment of the parking big picture may bring this about.

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