Business & Finance

Somerville Approves Free Downtown Parking During Holiday Season

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Somerville has waived parking fees in Lots 1, 2, 4 and 6 from Thanksgiving through New Year's Day. Credits: Rod Hirsch
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SOMERVILLE, NJ - As expected, the Borough Council last night continued its longstanding holiday tradition of waiving parking fees between Thanksgiving and New Year’s to help boost retail traffic in the downtown area.

The resolution, which passed unanimously, waives parking fees in Lots 1, 2, 4 and 6. A pre-existing holiday and weekend parking ordinance was amended to include Lot 4 in the exemption.

Metered parking will continue on Main Street.

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The vote came following an exchange between Mayor Brian Gallagher and several merchants who blame decreased traffic on Main Street and in their stores on higher parking fees that were increased late last year.

With Black Friday looming, downtown merchants were anxious for the resolution to be passed with several dozen retail store and restaurant owners on hand for the vote.

Afterwards, they promised to blitz social media to spread the word.

Free parking during the holiday is a tradition in Somerville, designed to attract shoppers and visitors to the downtown area and increase retail traffic in the stores along Main Street, the Division Street pedestrian mall and other side streets lined with restaurants and shops.

There are 1,100 parking meters and pay stations in the borough, according to Kevin Sluka, borough clerk.

Last year, however, the borough limited free parking in the metered lots during the holiday season to Saturdays only; there is no charge for parking in the lots on Sundays.

Increased parking fees instituted late last year have been a contentious issue with merchants, some of whom have organized an upstart business association, Business Owners on Main, in an effort to modify or eliminate metered parking as one of its objectives.

BOOM has met twice since Oct. 26, with some members attending the monthly meeting of the Downtown Somerville Alliance Nov. 14, where the conversation continued.

The DSA is empowered by the Borough Council to advocate for business and property owners and to market and promote the downtown, as well as impose a tax on Main Street property owners within the designated Special Improvement District to fund its efforts.

Gallagher proposed Monday night, and the Borough Council agreed, that a dormant parking study committee be revived, with members of BOOM, the DSA, Borough Council and a few residents appointed to re-examine the parking dilemma.

BOOM will meet again Dec. 11.

The lame-duck mayor, who was elected to a three-year term as a Somerset County Freeholder and will assume office Jan. 5, said the Borough Council had reached a consensus last year before implementing the higher rates, saying it was unfair for borough taxpayers to subsidize public parking.

There are two other options, Gallagher explained: the DSA could subsidize the parking fees by charging property owners and landlords a higher tax, or charging the motorists who park downtown to pay for the upkeep and maintenance of the lots.

“I don’t think it is fair for Somerville taxpayers to pay for the lots,” Gallagher said.

There is a fourth option, according to Anthony Ianniello, owner of Alfonso’s Family trattoria and Gourmet Pizza, a fixture on West Main Street for more than 60 years. 

 Ianniello advocates free parking, but even he admits there is little likelihood that will happen.

“The first thing you have to do in business is take care of your customers,” Ianniello said. “How can a downtown survive when we make it more difficult for our customers to come downtown,” he continued.

“You guys have to notice there’s no one there,” he told Gallagher and the council members.

Gallagher also said it is unfair to blame decreased Main Street traffic entirely on the revised parking fees, pointing to the undulations in the retail market and shopping patterns of consumers.

 “The world of retail is shot,” Gallagher said. “It doesn’t look good,” he added, pointing to major retailers and shopping malls that he claimed too, were “sucking wind.”

“Amazon wins,” he said, a reference to the online retail juggernaut.

Gallagher also suggested that rather than retreating to their respective corners and pointing fingers at one another, stakeholders should come together and explore alternatives to boost retail traffic in the downtown area.

The revised parking regulations, first adopted late last year and revised earlier this year, extend the time limits placed on Main Street parking meters from two to three hours, and eliminate time restrictions from off-street parking meters in municipal parking lots 1,2,4,6 and 7.

The borough maintains seven parking lots; Parking lots 1 and 2, behind the Main Street shopping district stretching from Maple Street on the east to North Doughty Avenue on the west, includes 300 spaces, according to Sluka. Lot 7, located on E. High Street between North Bridge Street and Grove Street has 170 spaces.

Lots 3, 4 and 5 on the east side of the borough are much smaller. Lot 6 is primarily used for jurors who drive in from outside Somerville.

The revisions adopted earlier this year include:

·       Enforcement times Monday-Saturday that begin at 9 a.m. were extended three hours, from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m., meaning there will fewer hours to park for free;

·        The new enforcement times in Parking Lots 1, 2, 4 and 6 are Monday through Saturday 9 a.m.-8 p.m. Hourly rates increased from 25 to 75 cents an hour for Lots 1,2 and 6;

·        The rates for Lot 7 increased from 25 cents to 50 cents per hour. Sluka said efforts are being made to encourage merchants, employees and others who spend their day in Somerville to park in Lot 7, which will add up to significant savings over a month’s time. Enforcement times in Lot 7 are Monday-Friday, 9 a.m-8 p.m.;

·         The hourly rate for Lot 4 was increased to $1 per hour with a maximum parking time of 2 hours. 

          The 12-minute, limited-time penny meters in the vicinity of the Post Office on Division Street have been left untouched.

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