Ed Williams, the apron-wearing proprietor of the Mumble and Squeak Toy Shoppe on Ellicott City's Main Street, has for decades heard arguments about downtown parking. It's a multiheaded beast — studied often, discussed ad nauseam and yet unsettled — but he figures he can point out what he considers the essence of the problem quickly by stepping out of his store on a bright October weekday afternoon.
Note the white Chevy parked in front of his shop, he says, and across the street the white van and another car up the street — all belonging not to customers but to the owners of local businesses. This is to say nothing of the odd proliferation of handicapped-parking hangtags among people who work on Main Street, allowing them to occupy a street space all day, avoid the two-hour daytime limit and take spots that might otherwise be used by visitors.
"There is a huge selfishness problem in this parking," says Williams, referring to some fellow business owners who he feels should park in lots off Main Street. That said, he is still among some 60 merchants who have signed a petition opposing the county's plan for parking in Historic Ellicott City, many of whom plan to meet Wednesday evening with the official in charge of the project that will soon install meters, raise some parking fees and charge for parking that is now free on Main Street and Maryland Avenue, off the lower end of Main.
The meeting at the George Howard Building with Steve Lafferty of the Department of Planning and Zoning is for information only. The decisions have been made, the contracts were signed in June and the new equipment is expected to be installed in the next few weeks to manage nearly 600 parking spaces: about 100 on the street, the rest in six lots, Lafferty said.
Metered spaces for $1 an hour will be added on Main Street and Maryland Avenue. In the parking lots, more than two-thirds of the spaces are free and will remain so. Those that now go for 50 cents an hour will stay at that rate, and the 25-cent spaces will rise to 50 cents.
No new charges will go into effect until after January, Lafferty says.
Sara Arditti, co-owner of the Still Life Gallery on Main Street and petition organizer, says the project — featuring a high-tech system that includes sensors installed in the pavement and a mobile app showing available parking — is a poor use of public money and will drive away business.
"It will generally cut down on the amount of people who will come here," says Arditti, who with husband, David Dempster, moved to Ellicott City from Los Angeles in the spring to open the art gallery. "It will annoy people and inconvenience them, and we don't want to do that to our customers."
Arditti acknowledges that she has no evidence to show that charging $1 an hour for on-street parking that is now free would depress commerce, but she says it stands to reason, as nearby shopping areas offer free parking. She says meters that once stood along Main Street in the 1970s were removed for that reason. Arditti says most Main Street business owners object to the parking project, though no formal opinion survey has been taken.
Some clearly support it, some don't and some land in between — in keeping with the tradition of independent-minded Ellicott City shopkeepers agreeing on very little, says Williams, who has been in business for 20 years.
Williams has mixed feelings about the plan, which is expected to cost about $360,000 the first year and up to $1 million over four years. He thinks it's too expensive and too elaborate.
"I can go either way with parking meters; it could be a good management tool," Williams says. "What I don't understand is the sensors and the app. ... It seems like a high-tech solution for a low-tech town."
Len Berkowitz, owner of the Great Panes stained-glass shop on Main Street, wonders whether the expense makes sense.
"I would rather they spent that money advertising Ellicott City and cleaning it up and repairing it," says Berkowitz, whose shop has been on Main Street for 33 years, in two locations.
Lissa Bounds, who owns Ellicott Interiors, agrees that the new charge for Main Street parking will discourage customers. She says the county administration's practices are inconsistent with its professed support of Historic Ellicott City.
"They couldn't do more to hurt us and destroy us as a merchant community if they tried," says Bounds.
But Karen Besson, owner of Art and Artisan on Main Street, finds the argument a bit overheated.
"I just think there's a huge overreaction," Besson says. "I don't think it's that controversial."
While she says she's not happy about the parking project, "if we're going to have paid parking in town, we need to have it done right. This is a step in the right direction."
She recalls attending the National Main Streets Conference held this spring in Baltimore by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, in which the sort of system the county is planning was recommended for historic districts such as Ellicott City's.
"They did that on Main Streets all over the country and it worked out fine," Besson says.
Matthew and Lexi Milani, who own The Rumor Mill restaurant off Main, say the parking plan makes sense, putting Historic Ellicott City in step with parking rates in Baltimore's Fells Point and Federal Hill and downtown Annapolis.
Where Arditti sees an impediment to visitors, Matthew Milani sees an incentive. He says he's been asking the county for help "getting business down here, adding value to the town." The new system's mobile application could give his restaurant staff information on parking they can convey by phone to customers who do not have the app.
"It's a service we can offer to our guests" says Milani, who opened the restaurant five years ago in a space that had been vacant for two years. He sees the parking plan as "modernizing Ellicott City" and doesn't understand the opposition.
"We appreciate the county wants to make this investment in the historic district," Lexi Milani says. "This is the first major investment the county has been willing to make after all these parking studies."
Indeed, the issue has been chewed over since at least the 1940s, as the Ellicott City Business Association reported in notes presented at a meeting with County Executive Ken Ulman in 2007. There's been a stack of recommendations and plans, including one study done in the 1970s as part of a Historic Ellicott City planning report, another in the 1990s and most recently in 2009.
The three reports include recommendations about new parking lots, possible shuttles and garages. All raise the point about abuse of Main Street parking by shopkeepers and employees contributing to the impression that parking is scarce on the sloping, narrow street of stone, brick and wood buildings.
Desman Associates, the consultants who did the 2009 study, found that parking in six lots and on the street is not scarce, and they did not recommend a new garage. They urged the county to do a better job of managing the parking it has and to begin charging $1 an hour for parking on Main Street and Maryland Avenue. Because of the narrow sidewalks in Ellicott City, Desman did not recommend multispace pay stations for on-street parking, but the county has chosen to install them.
"No one has taken this challenge on up until now," says Ulman. He says the consultant's report prompted his administration to begin researching parking management, coming up with a pavement sensor, pay meter and mobile app system made by Streetline, a California company. According to the company's website, versions of the system are being used in such cities as Los Angeles; Fort Worth, Texas; Indianapolis; and in parts of the University of Maryland campus in College Park.
Ellicott City will be the first community in Maryland to use this parking approach, Ulman says. He says the system will not only help run the parking, it will be collecting information on how the spaces are used, which are the busiest, and where and when the parking need is greatest. That information will be used to adjust the system, perhaps showing that parking shuttles are needed.
He says the purpose of the project is to support Historic Ellicott City, and he does not accept Arditti's argument that imposing new charges for street parking would discourage visitors.
"We just disagree strongly," Ulman says. "If we thought that was going to happen, we wouldn't be moving forward."