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Baltimore City's new planner aims to optimize Hampden parking

Restaurant and Catering IndustryHonFestMaryland Transit AdministrationMary Pat ClarkeCafe Hon

Jennifer Leonard was hired in May to the newly created position of parking planning manager in the Baltimore City Parking Authority.

"My role is going through each one of the communities (that have parking issues) and studying what their parking problems are, and their needs," she said.

Now, Leonard is conducting her first study, in Hampden. She is, in effect, the face of the Parking Authority.

"I'm good with that," she said. "I love working with communities."

In Hampden, where merchants, shoppers and residents complain bitterly about parking, Leonard has started what she estimates will be an approximately year-long study aimed at optimizing the neighborhood's parking..

"The goal is to hit the entire community over that period," she said in an recent interview at Cafe Hon, joined by Tiffany James, special assistant to Parking Authority Director Peter Little.

Leonard said she plans to spend the coming months looking at parking turnover, and fluctuations in parking in the daytime, at night, and during holidays and festivals, especially on The Avenue, Hampden's main retail area, and near schools.

The Parking Authority has also begun taking parking counts in Hampden, including one at Hampdenfest on Sept. 14

Leonard is working with the city's Department of Transportation, the Maryland Transit Administration on bus route issues, the Hampden Community Council, the Hampden Village Merchants Association, and Baltimore City Council members Nick Mosby and Mary Pat Clarke, who represent the Hampden area.

She is also working closely with a newly revived parking task force of community and business leaders in Hampden.

And she is keeping a close eye on planned developments in Remington and the redevelopment of the Rotunda mall, which complicate the parking picture.

'Nothing is ruled out'

Possible solutions include adding more reverse-angle parking spaces like those on Chestnut Avenue, which Leonard said could create 10-20 percent more parking; negotiating to use private and school lots for public parking when they're not in use; starting a valet service on The Avenue; expanding the Parking Authority's Residential Parking Permit program near the Rotunda; and establishing loading zones that can be shared by multiple businesses.

Leonard told the merchants' association last month that she is considering changing parking meter hours and doubling the hourly rate, currently 50 cents per hour..

There's been some talk in the community of building a municipal parking lot or garage. Will Bauer, a consultant to new businesses in Hampden, is part of a group that is trying to build a garage behind the old Dogwood. But he said the landlord rejected the idea and has signed a new restaurant tenant.

"The old-school way of thinking is, well, just build more parking and that'll take care of it," said James, a Hampden resident.

Leonard said she doesn't want Hampden to become "a parking lot," and added, "Parking lots don't activate a community."

But she said, "Nothing is ruled out."

She said she first wants to understand what factors are generating parking demand on a regular basis and during special events like HonFest and Hampdenfest, including the availability of on-and-off-street parking, bus and bike routes, car-sharing options, the walkability of the area, the volume of shoppers and peak hours for businesses.

She said she wants to "take the traditional tools available in parking and blend them with newer strategies."

"Hampden is an exciting place to start," she said, citing strong business, community and political support.

James, a resident since 2002, noted the community's increasing desirability.

"People want to be here, and that leads to parking issues," she said, adding that parking "changes the landscape and feel of a neighborhood."

Leonard said parking is important to a community's "sustainability."

'Parking is so bad'

Parking has been a hot-button issue in Hampden for years. In 2000, then-Mayor Martin O'Malley infuriated merchants by vetoing a City Council bill for a 27-space parking lot on Roland Avenue, saying the city would be better served by a comprehensive parking study.

The parking crunch rankles visitors, too. When Tecumseh Tribe 108 of the Fraternal Order of Red Men closed its hall in Hampden earlier this year and merged with a tribe in Frederick, longtime member John Sprucebank, of Glen Burnie, tried to look on the bright side.

"Parking is so bad," he said. "I won't miss that."

Last week, Gayle Jordan-Randolph, the state's deputy secretary for Behavioral Health, was running late to a public meeting about a controversial methadone clinic. When she arrived, Clarke, who was running the meeting, quipped, "I hope you were able to find parking, at least in Zip 11," a reference to Zip code 21211 in Hampden.

In April, a Hampden Community Council meeting on parking drew more than 100 people. When council board member Jay Lazar asked the audience to raise their hands if they had never had a parking problem in Hampden, only a handful of hands went up.

Lazar said then the council's goal was to revive a long-stalled project to develop a parking master plan for Hampden, as proposed in the mid-2000s.

Now, Lazar chairs the parking task force.

"I'm trying to communicate with them weekly to see where they are in their research," Leonard said.

Leonard and the Parking Authority study get high marks from task force member Benn Ray, president of the Hampden Village Merchants Association.

"I'm glad that we're first, instead of having to wait to address these issues," Ray said.

Differences of opinion

Still, there are strong differences over how to fix the parking problem and how bad it really is. Leonard thinks it's exacerbated by special events.

"Hampden doesn't have what one would consider a parking problem," Ray insists. "If you're able to park within a three-block radius of your destination, you don't have a parking problem."

But he said that with new mixed-use developments like the Rotunda and Mill No. 1 near the Jones Falls, "We are experiencing an increase in density that could lead to that."

He said the study is "an example of getting out ahead of an issue."

And he is glad to see momentum picking up again after a former task force fizzled in the mid-2000s, after failing to get city funding for its plans to slow traffic and increase parking on Falls Road.

Others see a bigger problem.

Genny Dill, who lives on Elm Avenue overlooking the Rotunda, wants the Parking Authority to create a new Residential Permit Parking area in the vicinity of Elm and 38th Street, at a time when the mall is being redeveloped with apartments and more retail.

"Jennifer has said a lot that it's OK for people to walk four blocks to their homes," Dill said. But for the elderly, ""four blocks is not an option."

There is also debate over the wisdom of creating more residential permit parking areas. Ray worries it will push people to park on other streets, creating parking problems on those streets.

Ray also said some people feel "a sense of entitlement" and are putting up illegal "no parking" signs.

Off to a good start

Despite differences of opinion, there's consensus that Leonard is knowledgeable and is looking out for the community's interests.

"She's great," said Bauer, who is pushing for a parking garage. "She's very aggressive. She's like the point person for all these (ideas) that have been circulating. She's completely honest and frank."

"I like her," said Ray. "She seems smart. She has a fundamental understanding of parking and how it works. She has a lot of data and facts to back up what she's saying."

"She's very nice. She's very respectful," said Dill, who likes Leonard's push to use private lots for after-hours parking. "I think she has some good ideas."

For Dill, "It's wait and see and crossing our fingers. We need to come to a happy medium."

Leonard wants to see passion more than immediate consensus.

"If I came in and everybody is blase about it, that's not what you want to see," she said.

She relishes the chance to "lay the groundwork" for parking changes and emulate Hampden successes in other neighborhoods with main streets.

"I'm really excited about it, actually," she said.

But she prefers to be "invisible" as she works behind the scenes.

"That will be perfect in my world," she said.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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