A prior opinion letter looked at Summit’s goals for the Downtown that included efforts to add a new parking garage in or near the downtown.  My goal with this letter is to encourage public discussion on parking management changes that are urgently needed to improve conditions for downtown visitors, merchants and property owners.

The current state of parking in Summit is confused and disjointed. There are many parking options in many locations with many time limits. If you’ve talked to someone new to town about where and how to park in Summit it is not an easy conversation.  So what can be done to make the existing parking work better? Let’s start with some common sense observations.

First, Summit is a transit hub and commercial small city with many of its residents living close to the downtown. In fact, Summit’s major point of difference is its compactness. This means the need to drive and park a vehicle is not the only way to get to the downtown. Too little is done to maximize this feature.  Secondly, it means that driving and parking may include a short pleasant walk to your destination. 

At the heart of any parking improvement plan is the proper allocation of resources.  This is presently not done well. The control elements are permits for commuters and employees and zones for visitors.  However, the City issues commuter and employee permits with no expiration so the allocation model is hopelessly broken. And there is no parking management by zones.  If permits were renewed each year or every two years then the City would have a true picture of demand as it changes over time. The non-resident cash valet parking arrangement at the East Broad St. lot and beyond deserves its own opinion letter.    

Employee parking is the single greatest challenge in the system. The City parking authority can’t solve it alone. The downtown management group, SDI, who is aligned with property owners and leaseholders, is in the best position to both issue employee permits and to educate users on appropriate employee parking sites. Unlike the City, SDI recognizes that many employees don’t park in a single space all day. It is time the City recognizes it is unable to properly manage employee parking and to turn this work and some parking revenue over to SDI to run this program.

The City’s effort to promote parking shortage does not take into account a dramatic loss of downtown pedestrian traffic. The town has not replaced the nearly 900 daily visitor trips generated by the Summit Medical Group which once occupied the corner of Deforest and Summit Ave.  This along with trends of fewer employees per square foot of office space and higher levels of commercial space vacancies calls into question whether downtown demand is accurately reported.     

Merchants are given credit for suffering the effects of a purported parking shortage. Merchants suffer less from a shortage of spaces but instead suffer more from a widely held public perception that parking in Summit is difficult-hard to find spaces and risky due to an overly aggressive parking enforcement policy. The City also continues to take away important visitor meter spaces by haphazardly green bagging them for daily employee use.  

Summit’s parking reputation needs improvement. The goal should be to gain a positive perception by making it easy to find a parking space and hard to get a parking ticket.  This would result in a dramatic improvement in pedestrian traffic. In theory, that was what was supposed to happen when the Deforest lots were changed, but instead the overly complicated gate system is a barrier to their use.

There should be little disagreement that visitors want a better parking experience. The parking system should flex during periods of peak demand. Yes, people will need to walk al little further. I have heard the argument that visitors/shoppers demand parking close to the business front door. Unless you have a disability, I have no sympathy for anyone advocating this since Summit is a walkable community. If you want to park in front of a business then go to a suburban community like Bridgewater.

Summit’s time limits on meters and lots are presently a poor fit for users and are needlessly confusing. The time limit system in place does one thing very well. It produces many $25 parking citations.  What would happen if the City had only 4 time limit options? For example:

30 minutes or less, 2 hours or less, 5 hours or less and full day rate. Simply observe the 15 minute spaces on Union Place to see how this very short time limit does not work.  Most visitors at a 15 minute space need more time and therefore risk a ticket. The only sure way to encourage turnover of parking spaces in the highest demand zone is to limit the maximize time a vehicle parks in that zone each day without making exceptions. Some ongoing education and proper enforcement for repeat offenders more easily and inexpensively increases parking availability.  For a compact community, the City administration has made parking needlessly complicated and mean spirited.

A final example that best demonstrates a lack of parking management foresight is the number 3 Deforest parking lot(Deforest and Summit Ave). It is the smallest of the 3 Deforest lots.  When it was renovated and the new gate technology was added spaces were lost due to design. However, this did not prevent the City from moving 6 leased parking spaces (24 hour leased spaces no turnover) inside the parking lot. The City collects about $600 a quarter from each leased space. Is this an example of putting revenue before service or of making special accommodations for a few ahead of the public good? 

It’s time to change parking policy in Summit

Robert Steelman