Parking meters coming downtown?

06/13/2014 4:00 PM |
Members of the town's parking committee have called for parking meters downtown, though some board members are hesitant to support the proposal (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch file)

Members of the town’s parking committee have called for parking meters downtown, though some board members are hesitant to support the proposal (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch file)

Is there a traffic problem downtown?

It depends on who you ask.

But members of the town’s parking committee believe a problem exists — and that it’s just a matter of time until it becomes a really big one. 

With that in mind, they’re in the process of drawing up a proposal to install parking meters downtown.

“It’s become a problem everywhere near Main Street,” said Ray Pickersgill, a parking committee member and executive director of the town’s Business Improvement District. “There’s only one real solution, and that’s a parking garage. But where are we going to get the money for that?”

Recent estimates put the cost of building a downtown parking garage as high as $20 million or more. Instead, Mr. Pickersgill said, he hopes the town will embrace the idea of installing parking meters — again.

There used to be parking meters downtown, but the town removed them in the mid-1990s in response to public pressure, according to a 1995 News-Review article. Debate over keeping or removing them was strong at the time, as members of the BID favored retaining them to support frequent customer turnover.

Similar concerns still ring true today.

John Mantzopoulos, also a parking committee member, is in the process of rebuilding his downtown restaurant, Athens Grill restaurant, which burned down last year. He said Tuesday that there’s a need to bring back the meters — and it’s evident just taking a look around Long Island.

“Considering that 9.9 out of 10 municipalities have them these days,” he said, “I think people should have to pay for some parking.”

Mr. Mantzopoulos explained that with downtown attractions that draw large crowds — such as the Suffolk County Culinary Institute, Summerwind, the Suffolk Theater and others — smaller “mom and pop” operations can be squeezed out if a few businesses hog all the parking spots.

“We have to have some kind of resolution that makes all parties happy,” he said. “At least 80 percent happy.”

Although details such as start-up costs aren’t yet available, Mr. Pickersgill and Mr. Mantzopoulos explained that the idea at this stage is to designate the south side of the Summerwind parking lot as paid and the north side as free. The plan would be to allow longer-term parking in free spots, while making sure the paid spots turn over so that customers can come and go.

Mr. Mantzopoulos said he anticipates negative feedback about the idea.

“I’m sure we’re going to be criticized for this,” he said. “But something has to be done.”

Not so, according to Supervisor Sean Walter.

“At some point, [paid parking] will probably be a necessary evil,” Mr. Walter said. “But we have a perceived parking problem right now. Even during the farmers market, when we have 1,000 people visiting, you can still get a spot.”

Councilman John Dunleavy, the town board’s liaison to the parking committee, said that instead of changing the parking structure downtown, he’d like to see better enforcement of the existing structure. Current regulations include time limits on Main Street parking spaces and parking spaces in the Peconic River parking lot, though no signs were ever posted informing drivers of the latter.

The councilman favors hiring a full-time traffic control officer for about $45,000, including benefits. He said the position could pay for itself, and even add to the town’s coffers.

Mr. Walter said he doesn’t believe the town would break even if it hired someone to hand out tickets.

Mr. Pickersgill said enforcing metered parking could be a first step toward gathering the funds needed to eventually build a parking garage.

jpinciaro@timesreview.com