Opinions are mixed as city and DMCI ponder whether there's room to improve downtown parking

Daniel Allain is quick to point out that there isn't a downtown Moncton parking problem.
A crowd of over 100 business operators, property owners and employees gathered at the City Grill restaurant for a roundtable discussion last week to discuss downtown issues, with parking being one of the hot topics.

Allain said a lot of good ideas came from the meeting and together with their partners they must look to develop solutions, even if they are only temporary or are a bit unconventional.

"We're working with the city to try to convince them that there are a lot of parking opportunities in our downtown. If it's putting parking on Main Street, or not charging people for the first hour or half hour in the parking meters, we have to be innovative," he said. "If we're not innovative, if we don't think outside the box, the troubling trend of seeing less investment in the downtown could happen."

Stephane Thibodeau, the City of Moncton's transportation and parking coordinator, said there are approximately 8,000 parking spaces downtown and there are about 15,000 employees who work in the downtown core. It may seem like an inadequate amount of parking, but Thibodeau said the problem actually lies in trying to find more viable and sustainable methods of getting people downtown.

"The biggest issue is transportation. I'm not saying we have a transportation problem, it's more like, can we find ways to reduce the number of people that are (driving) downtown, by taking another means of transportation and making that transportation more sustainable so that you have short-term parking requirements that are met," he said. "I think that's the biggest issue for the merchants, they are looking for more short-term parking and accessible parking."

The city underwent an independent strategic parking study in 2006 and Thibodeau said two of the main findings were that there was actually too much available parking downtown and that the cost of parking downtown was too cheap.

With estimates that indicate building a parking garage costs around $30,000 per spot, the study found that current parking costs are too low to make building and operating a parking garage a viable solution for new developers.

Thibodeau said meter parking currently costs between $1 and $2 an hour downtown and $60 to $120 monthly in the city's various parking garages.

"They said in the study get your monthly rate up to $140, then it becomes more appealing for developments to look at building multi-level structures that incorporate commercial, retail and parking," he said.

Steve Clerke, who operates Gifts Galore on Main Street, said he believes there is room for improvement in downtown parking, but overall he has no complaints.

"In Moncton we have a perceived parking problem. It's not like a shopping centre where you can see the door and walk up to the door. In any downtown, not just in Moncton, you have to walk around a building, you have to look for your parking lots," he said. "Our out of town customers have never said a word about parking, they often say how inexpensive our parking is in the downtown core. Especially people visiting from larger centres like Montreal or Toronto or Vancouver."

Despite prices lower than in larger cities, some citizens still aren't happy.

"I don't like parking downtown. They just need to have more free parking I guess. I pay $70 a month to park, which I think is too much," said Chantale Saulnier of Dieppe.

The general consensus amongst city officials and business owners is that while free parking sounds good in theory, it would create logjams where people tie up parking spaces for long periods of time.

Other citizens find parking downtown inconvenient.

"It's terrible," said Suzanne Frenette of Moncton. "There's no place to park and you have to walk several blocks to get where you want to get and if you do find a parking spot it costs you a fortune."

On the other hand, some citizens don't believe downtown parking is a big issue.

"If you know the places to look for parking it's not that bad. I certainly think there are enough spots and the cost of it isn't bad. Nothing in life is free and I don't think parking should be free either," said Donald LeBlanc of Moncton.

Dylan Meisner, the general manager of the The Old Triangle on Main Street, is originally from Halifax and said parking issues here are similar to the ones faced in that city. He said he has found some limitations with Moncton's downtown parking from both a personal and business standpoint.

"I think businesses might be limited a little bit by walk-in traffic, especially when there's bad weather, because parking may not be readily available or close to their destination," he said. "The less travel time on foot, the better. People don't mind walking in the summer, but in the winter when it's raining, would you leave the house if you knew you had to make a three or four block walk in the rain?"

Times & Transcript staff recently monitored Moncton's downtown both on weekday mornings and during lunch hour rush for the past week. The findings were that generally speaking there was plenty of short-term parking available at meters on Botsford, Alma and Church Street, while private and public lots also had vacancies.

Thibodeau said the city-owned Alma and Church parking garage was only full on two occasions in all of 2009 and said although other lots in the downtown can get filled up during noon hour, there normally isn't an issue finding a parking somewhere close to the city's core.

Moncton Mayor George LeBlanc said he'd like to see more multi-functional development in the downtown which combines residential components with commercial and retail and could potentially be home to a financially viable parking garage.

He also said he'd like to see current parking lots and garages made more easily accessible and easier to find through enhanced signage, as well noting he is potentially interested in discussing adding more on-street parking.

"At the moment we have quite a lot of surface parking in the downtown if you take a look you'll find we have parking lots surrounding Main Street.

Some of it is right off Main Street, some of it is just a few steps away," he said. "I guess what I'd say is yes there are some parking issues downtown, and I think we need to work with (DMCI) and businesses here and work on some solutions."
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