If you engage in a conversation about downtown Ellicott City with a business owner or resident of the area, parking along Main Street and the side streets in the historic district almost always comes up as a topic.
Is the parking adequate or inefficient? Should parking be free or paid? Should spaces be provided in surface lots or garages? The answers depend on who is talking.
Various solutions to what some perceive as inadequate parking have been proposed over the years, including the idea for a parking garage that never came to fruition.
County Executive Ken Ulman, however, believes there are enough parking spaces downtown along Main Street and in the lots scattered around it; the problem for drivers is knowing where to find them.
"They're (just) not well managed; they're not easily navigatable," he said at a town hall meeting on revitalization efforts in historic Ellicott City, held Tuesday evening, Aug. 21, at the George Howard Building.
Ulman announced his administration's plan for helping solve that problem — a smart phone and Web application called Parker that will show a live feed of what parking spaces are full and what parking spaces are empty.
The application, run by a San Francisco-based company called Streetline, uses sensors that will be installed in each parking space.
"I think (And I could be wrong: Occasionally, I am.) this will help break down what I think is often a misperception that Main Street is a tough place to park; when in fact, many times there are spaces," Ulman said.
The application will also collect data by the hour on parking habits in Ellicott City, so if there is a parking deficiency, the county can address it, he noted.
The county will pay $148,000 for installation and initial hardware/software costs and then another $170,000 annually for a contract with Streetline to maintain the system, according to Steve Lafferty, the county's director of special projects.
The sensors will be installed in all 594 parking spaces downtown, both free and metered spaces.
In addition to the Parker application, the county is planning to replace the single-space meters in downtown Ellicott City with multi-space meters.
About 13 multi-space meters will be placed in the parking lots downtown and along Main Street, according to community planner Brad Killian.
Each paid parking space will have a number that the person will enter into the multi-space meter when he pays for the allotted time he plans to spend downtown.
With the new meter system, the parking fees would increase from 25 cents an hour to 50 cents an hour in the lots and $1 an hour for spaces directly along Main Street and Maryland Avenue, Killian said.
"In the lots, the spaces that are free will remain free," Killian said. That's a total of 351 spaces in Lots A, D and F, according to Lafferty said.
The 102 free, two-hour parking spaces along Main Street and Maryland Avenue, however, will become paid spaces, operated under the new multi-space meters.
The proposed fee changes will go before the County Council next month for approval.
Both the Parker application and the multi-space meters are expected to be up and running in mid-October, Lafferty said.
The county's parking proposals drew a lot of questions and mixed reactions.
"I'd like to make sure that the business owners can get free parking permits in the lots," said Sara Arditti, who — along with her husband, David Dempster — owns Still Life Gallery on Main Street.
The Los Angeles transplants moved to the area three years ago, lured by an opportunity to fulfill their dreams of owning an art gallery. The couple bought the gallery on Main Street in May.
Arditti said she and her husband park in the lot that is located by Old Columbia Pike, and "parking is fairly plentiful."
However, she said she's seen and heard of many business owners who park along Main Street, taking spaces away from potential customers.
"This sounds like a practice that has to stop," Arditti said.
Len Berkowitz, owner of Great Panes glass studio, said the county may see its proposal as solving the parking problem, but he doesn't.
"I don't see it as adding more spaces," he said.
Berkowitz always envisioned two parking garages that would serve downtown — one on the south end of Main Street near Oella Avenue and one on the north end near Ellicott Mills Drive.
But after having owned his business for 33 years, and seen five county executives and dozens of master plans related to downtown Ellicott City, Berkowitz acknowledged: "There doesn't seem to be an easy solution to parking."
The town hall was set up so that after Ulman and Lafferty gave remarks, the 100 or so attendees could approach tables, each presenting a different aspect of the county's downtown Ellicott City revitalization efforts.
Information was available on the redevelopment of the Hilltop housing complex, a low-income housing community in historic Ellicott City that is being transformed into a mixed-income community with more than double the number of current units. Construction began in December.
Howard County Housing Director Tom Carbo said the first 45 units in the development are expected to be finished in October for residents to move in that month or the next.
County Stormwater Manager Jim Caldwell was on hand to discuss storm-water improvements aimed at limiting downtown flooding. The county, he said, is "doing a study to follow the flow of water down through the channel and see where the choke points are."
In implementing storm-water controls, the county is also planning to open up the oft-hidden waterways.
"I would love to see some more gathering places that celebrate the water," Ulman said, noting the potential to create "mini-parks."