June 19, 2016

Downtown grapples with parking

Cars fill the downtown parking spaces in White River Junction on Wednesday.

Noella May Pickett Photo

Cars fill the downtown parking spaces in White River Junction on Wednesday.

WHITE RIVER JUNCTION — Over the past 15 years, White River Junction has seen an economic revival. As it plans for future growth, the town is concerned about limited parking resources for business owners, employees and residents.

“We want to make sure that as our town grows, there’s enough parking to accommodate the needs,” said Matt Osborn, Hartford community development planner. “We want to continue to see the town grow and we stress that without ample parking, the current conditions could hinder revitalization efforts.”

Through a combination of town funds and a grant from the Vermont Department of Housing and Community Development, the town of Hartford recently designated Vital Communities and Resource Systems Group, or RSG, to develop a parking management plan for downtown White River Junction.

“This study will examine ways to improve current parking conditions and to manage future demands for parking in the historic downtown,” Aaron Brown, transportation program manager at Vital Communities, said.

The total budget for the study is $26,000.

“The grant awarded $20,000 and the Town has budgeted $6,000 cash for the project,” Brown said.

In 2005, Hartford’s Planning Department started a downtown parking survey that takes place twice a year. It is intended to monitor and record parking data to help with future downtown development.

Osborn, who is leading the effort behind the parking plan, said recent surveys show the downtown parking areas are seeing more and more use.

“With additional projects underway, we at the town felt it was necessary and timely to undertake a parking study,” he said.

“This downtown designation study area is needed for future capacity. The goal is not to identify parking that needs to be built; the study is comprised of implementing a plan for strategic alternatives,” Brown said.

These alternatives are focused at looking at the possibilities of furthering public transportation within the town, carpooling efforts and encouraging other non-vehicle modes of transportation, such as a bike.

“We currently have about 30 students, and a majority — I would say all but three — either walk to the facility or ride their bikes,” said Abe Olson, administrative coordinator at The Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction.

The area is pedestrian- and bike-friendly, in addition to having most daily amenities within walking distance.

“My girlfriend and I live within walking distance of downtown and currently, speaking from my own perspective, I do not feel that there are parking issues at this time. However, as the city grows there may be a further demand then. This sounds like a proactive study,” Olson said.

This project is going to shed some light on what the current parking conditions are.

“We do not have metered parking spaces and there is a two hour parking limit on street parking,” Osborn said. “We’ve thought about how this could be monitored.”

The first steering-committee meeting took place last week, and the study will run through approximately the end of the calendar year.

“This allows for plenty of time for the public to participate. There will be a few outlets for public outreach. Aaron Brown and Ben Swanson [RSG consultant and project manager for the study] will be creating a survey, and there will be meetings open to the public as well,” said Erica Wygonik, senior engineer with RSG.

The downtown area of White River Junction spans about 40 acres, with a population of approximately 2,290, according to public records.

“We have a relatively small downtown for parking and development,” Osborn said. “We are looking at the big picture for transportation planning, but we just don’t have the space or the funds for a large parking garage. It could cost tens of thousands of dollars for just one space in a garage.”

There has been some worry from local residents in regards to the preservation of the historic buildings. There are no plans for removal of buildings to create additional parking.

“Our desire is not to have a town full of parking; we aim to balance the need for parking. One idea is shared parking. Having businesses share spaces if they have opposite hours of operation. Sharing the same spaces is always desirable,” Swanson said.

The study will pinpoint the deficiencies the town currently faces with parking, and will project this plan into the future to further attract new business owners and residents to the area. With the town right out their front doors, this study is unique to both Vital Communities and RSG.

“Through the two companies that we’ve hired, we are looking creatively for parking solutions. Not only are both companies located in Downtown White River Junction, but they have the experience we are seeking in the field of transportation-demand management,” Osborn said.

Vital Communities is a nonprofit organization based in White River Junction, specializing in catalyzing solutions to regional issues, and has advocated for sustainable transportation options since 2002. RSG is also based in White River Junction, and specializes in planning, analysis and design of transportation systems, both nationally and internationally, since 1986.

“We are enjoying this local project. We hope we will be able make the needed improvements with the help of community members,” Wygonik said.

The study is still in the early stages of planning.

“We are looking for the cheapest parking space we don’t have to build,” Brown said.

Learn more at www.vitalcommunities.org and www.rsginc.com.

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