After years of driving from Glen Burnie to Hampden for meetings, John Sprucebank, a longtime member of the Improved Order of Red Men, said last month he was sad that the fraternal lodge near The Avenue was closing.
But he was happy about one thing; he won't have to find a parking space in Hampden anymore.
"Parking is so bad," Sprucebank said. "I won't miss that."
Parking has long been the bane of local residents, merchants, restaurant goers and shoppers. On Monday, April 1, the Hampden Community Council is scheduled to discuss the parking problem and what can be done about it. The meeting starts at 7 p.m., in the Roosevelt Recreation Center, 1121 W. 36th St.
Everyone pretty much agrees there's a problem, although they differ on the extent and what to do about it.
"As someone who has lived in Fells Point and Mount Vernon before moving to Hampden years ago, I've always been surprised by people who say Hampden has a parking problem (and people were complaining about it when I moved here in 2000)," merchant Benn Ray wrote in an e-mail Friday. "I can still always park within a couple blocks of where I want to go, so I don't see it as a parking problem. It's all relative, I suppose, and attitudes toward parking are not always rational. Some residents and business owners, for example, think they are entitled to park on public streets directly in front of their house or business.
"But that being said, as the Hampden area's population density continues to increase, parking is becoming tighter, and I think it makes sense to deal with our parking situation now before it becomes a severe problem," said Ray, co-owner of Atomic Books and president of the Hampden Village Merchants Association. The association recently revived its long-dormant parking task force.
Hampden Community Council secretary Genny Dill sounded a more dire note.
"Parking in Hampden has been progressively getting worse for a number of years," Dill said in an email Friday. "With the introduction of new developments, events, new businesses and new restaurants, the parking crunch will just get tighter and tighter unless we can develop real solutions."
Chad Gauss, chef and owner of The Food Market, a restaurant that opened on The Avenue (West 36th Street) last year, offers valet parking for free to his diners and considers it a key to the success of the popular eatery.
Without being approved for valet parking, "I wouldn't have opened in Hampden, no way," Gauss said. He said he pays the parking service Jay's Valet $8,000 a month for three valet parking attendants, seven nights a week. They park 50 -90 cars a night. There's no valet parking for the 200 Sunday brunch customers each week and parking is a problem then, he said.
Gauss thinks the parking problem is community-wide.
"Hampden does have to do something about it," he said.
But not everyone agrees on the possible solutions.
Dill wants the city to create a new residential permit parking area around the Rotunda, so that tenants of apartments at the mall once it is redeveloped won't park on nearby 38th Street and Elm Avenue.
But Ray wrote, "One thing Hampden does NOT want to do is to enact more residential permit parking. Studies show this creates more neighborhood parking problems than it resolves, and no one wants to see Hampden become another Federal Hill. Even Canton has moved away from residential permit parking because of the problems it creates for the neighborhood."
Ray also favors creating more parking space by using reverse-angle parking, as has been done on Chestnut Avenue. But Gauss said motorists backing into reverse-angle spaces as cars wait behind them "doesn't really work" on The Avenue, a busy, one-lane street each way and the main drag in Hampden's business district.
Dill said reverse-angle parking on 36th Street "opened up many new parking spaces for our business district, but it was unfortunately not enough to sustain the businesses there and still be able to grow."
There's agreement on some ideas, including a municipal parking garage, which Ray said the city had discussed when Gov. Martin O'Malley was mayor.
"I do think the time is right to again look at a municipal garage and we've already located several locations we think would be appropriate," Ray said. He said the large lot behind the now-closed Dogwood restaurant used to be a municipal lot, until the city sold it to private ownership.
"It seems to me the city could reacquire that lot and help bond a parking lot development there," Ray said, referring to the possibility of bond money to finance a public garage.
"They could put a parking lot there in a heartbeat," Gauss said.
Gauss also suggested that member of merchants' association could contribute money to fund a "community valet" service, similar to one in the Mount Washington Village restaurant-retail district.
Ray said the community has been lobbying for the Charm City Circulator bus to come through Hampden.
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"We should be looking at all of our options, and be open to incorporating several including, but not limited to, residential permit parking, reverse-angle parking, and even parking garages," Dill said. "I am counting on the city to be willing to work with the community and invest in long-term parking solutions for the area."