Plan for metered parking in Pittsfield ruffles feathers at Berkshire Nautilus
PITTSFIELD — Jim Ramondetta said he couldn't sleep after learning of the city's plans for parking meters in the lot formerly known as the Columbus Avenue garage.
The owner of Berkshire Nautilus said the move unfairly hurts his business.
"This is a user fee on my membership," he said during an interview upstairs at his Summer Street gym. "It effectively doubles my membership costs."
Ramondetta and Ward 6 Councilor John Krol filed a petition last week calling for a review of the plans for meters at the lot that stretches between Columbus Avenue and Summer Street. Before construction began last month, Ramondetta's customers enjoyed free three-hour parking.
The project involves demolishing the slouching parking structure and paving the area into a surface lot.
On Tuesday, Ramondetta gave an impassioned statement to the City Council, talking loudly beyond his three-minute allotment and hitting the podium with a thud as he finished.
Meters are his main concern.
"No one up to this point in any conversation with me had mentioned the "m" word," he told councilors. "It appears now that this was the plan all along. I felt deceived."
Ramondetta later told The Eagle that he hadn't realized there was a time limit to public comment.
But Mayor Linda Tyer didn't take kindly to the criticism, sending councilors a response letter Thursday that called Ramondetta's remarks disingenuous. She said members of her team have communicated with Ramondetta and his representatives multiple times over the past several months.
To say that hasn't happened besmirches the hard work of her team, she said.
"I understand that not everyone is going to agree with all of the decisions that are made, even if they're made in what I consider to be the best interest of the most people," Tyer told The Eagle. "But what's not acceptable is false claims that are presented as the truth."
"In spite of everything," she said she's committed to working with Ramondetta toward a solution. She said she'll respond more formally to the petition during the next City Council meeting.
Ramondetta said he has 800 to 1,000 members, depending on the season, and about 200 people a day come through the establishment who rely on the free three-hour parking. He estimated that the average workout time is over an hour.
"It's not a secret that Nautilus has been struggling for quite some time," he said, citing growing competition.
Tyer said she's working to implement the parking plan — an initiative that she said began before she took office. It's important, she said, to implement it equitably "to not just his business, but to all businesses."
She said it's also important to ensure that the city has money to support parking construction and maintenance work in the city — an elevator is down at the McKay Street Garage, for example — and money earned via parking meters goes directly to that work.
"It's still necessary for us to have a source of revenue to be able to take care of our parking facilities," she said.
Under the parking plan approved in 2016, parking is free before 8 a.m. and after 4 p.m. During the day, North Street parking costs $1 an hour and the first 30 minutes are free. For city lots, parking is 50 cents an hour, with the first 30 minutes free.
That's the plan, Tyer said, but the city is deploying it in phases. The lot near Nautilus moves into metered parking as the city revamps the lot, as did the First Street lot before that.
But Krol notes that the Melville Street lot remains free for three-hour parking, and maybe it's not a bad idea to leave some spaces that way.
Asked if the city plans to also place meters at the Melville Street lot, Tyer's answer referred attention back to Columbus Avenue.
"The intention has always been to phase in the parking management plan," she said. "At this moment, we are solely focused on the Columbus Avenue lot."
Ramondetta said that last week he attended an abutters' meeting, where he was joined by representatives of Hotel on North, Barrington Stage and the Berkshire Regional Transit Authority. City employees talked about the project's time frame and traffic impacts, and he said it became clear that he's the only one with a vested interest in the move to paid parking.
It was there, he said, that he first learned about the meters.
Ramondetta bought the gym in 1995 and moved it to Summer Street in 2001, after putting about $1.2 million into the space, he said. He moved the gym ahead of a long-since-defunct plan to put a stadium in the area of the gym's former site, now occupied by Miller Supply.
The city needed the space, he said, and former Mayor Gerald Doyle was "getting all the ducks in order to get the stadium."
So, Ramondetta said he planned the move preemptively, in support of the planned stadium.
"I was willing to support the city and the downtown," he said.
He describes himself as an early investor in what was once a slow section of downtown.
"With an investment of well over $1 million, we were one of the first early risk takers in the revitalization effort for downtown Pittsfield," he told councilors.
Now, he said, he's asking the city to return the favor.
Meters make sense for North Street, he said, but not for the Columbus Avenue lot.
"You have to make people feel like you want 'em downtown," he said. "I don't think it's inviting."
Tyer said Ramondetta already won city support in the form of a five-year tax incentive after his move downtown.
On-street parking along Summer Street also remains free for three hours, she said. And Ramondetta already owns his own lot next to the gym — "an asset not available to most downtown businesses."
Meantime, the city is working with Downtown Pittsfield Inc. to mitigate impacts of the Columbus Avenue project on nearby businesses, but Tyer said no one from Nautilus came to a City Hall meeting in March that was convened by the downtown nonprofit.
She said her office has reached out regularly to abutters, responding to requests about noise reduction and traffic concerns.
Talks with abutters remain ongoing, Tyer said in her letter to councilors.
Krol says Tyer should listen to Ramondetta and take another look at the plan. When he moved, he said, he did it for the good of the city.
"It doesn't entitle him to free parking," he said. "But I think it's something that we need to consider."
Amanda Drane can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org, @amandadrane on Twitter, and 413-496-6296.
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