Despite a partial collapse in one garage in the spring and record snowfall and rain, the Longwell and Westminster Square parking garages will wrap up about a year's worth of construction within the next few weeks, with an expected opening Sept. 1, Westminster city officials said.
The garages, with about 500 new spaces between them, will bring the city's total downtown public parking spaces to more than 2,300 - enough to accommodate the business development that city officials hope to see.
"It was a vote of confidence in downtown," said Thomas B. Beyard, the city's director of planning and public works. "Normally when we do these projects, they spur private development."
The completion of the projects also will bring a new era of technology to parking in Westminster. The garages will have computerized meters, electronic payment machines and software, all costing nearly $500,000. "Smart cards" will be available to be used instead of cash at the meters and payment machines.
Beyard said 315 spaces will be available in the three-level Longwell garage and 163 in the Westminster Square garage. State bond money is being used to pay for the $2.85 million Longwell garage construction and renovation of the adjacent pedestrian mall at Locust Lane. BB&T; donated land to the city on Liberty Street that is the site of the Westminster Square garage and a four-story office and residential building being built by Tyler-Donegan, a real estate development company. BB&T; also donated $2 million toward the construction of that garage.
Stanley T. Ruchlewicz, the city's economic development administrator, said the garages will attract businesses to the area and will allow the city to develop surplus lots into retail and business opportunities. Construction began on the $2.5 million Longwell garage in October amid criticism that it was unnecessary because the existing lot was more than adequate.
"Do we need the decks, in theory, for existing buildings?" Ruchlewicz asked. "The answer for the most part is no. Most of the existing buildings are maxed out, but the garages are for the future, for change, expansion and renovation."
In conjunction with the building of the garage, the city is giving the Locust Lane pedestrian mall that adjoins the Longwell garage a face-lift: new pavement, benches, tables, a performance stage and an information kiosk, crowned by a new cast-iron archway.
Record snowfall this winter and persistent rain this spring and summer slowed construction on both projects. Progress on the Longwell garage was halted for a week in early April when a concrete slab gave way while a crane was lowering it into what would have been the deck's third level. The slab crashed to the ground and injured two workers, who were treated and released after being flown to Maryland Shock Trauma Center in Baltimore.
With new facilities and machines comes an increase in parking meter fees, permits and other fees - a move, city officials said, to dissuade long-term parkers from taking metered spots closer to shops and to encourage them to buy permits for parking. This will give shoppers and visitors to downtown Westminster priority parking and stimulate the economy, city officials said. But it is a decision that has been met with anger from local downtown business owners.
Shop owners said some Main Street business employees park at the metered spaces instead of the permit lots, which are farther away. It is a problem that they said could have been fixed with stiffer enforcement, not with the building of a garage.
Store owners also complained that doubling the meter prices to 50 cents per hour and tripling fines to as much $50 will drive customers away instead of attracting them to downtown.
"For months we've been off," said Stephen Hossler, owner of David's Jewelers on Main Street for 23 years. "You can't say it was directly because of the garage, but it did have an effect. We were down 16 percent in the month it started, and we've gotten better only because I've spent major money in advertising to offset major problems."
Hossler doesn't believe the new spaces in the garages will be filled.
"The garage is a good thing for the future if the city solicits retail and businesses to downtown," Hossler said. "But I don't see that the city has done that."
On-street meters will be limited to two hours, and lot parking will be three hours. Permit parking will start at $20 a month for outer lots to $30 a month for garage parking. Discounts will be available for permit seekers who buy in advance or in bulk.