Though the perception might be otherwise, historic Ellicott City doesn't need a parking garage or more spaces - at least not yet.
What's needed is better management of existing parking, according to a consultant's study for the Howard County revenue authority.
Michael Connor said that the recommendation is preliminary and that his study won't be complete until next month. But he gave three members of the revenue authority a preview at a meeting last week.
The study by Desman Associates of McLean, Va., examined parking in the congested Main Street area on a Friday and Saturday in October. Connor acknowledged that those days would not be as busy as the peak Christmas shopping season and noted that the recession could have reduced the number of cars. But his conclusion was clear.
"There doesn't appear to be a true [parking] supply-and-demand problem today," Connor told authority members at the county's temporary headquarters in Columbia. "If you asked me if you need a parking garage to address it, I'd say no."
He said there probably won't be a need for three to 10 years.
Ellicott City merchants are not of one mind on a garage, according to several business owners. There are environmental and historic preservation issues, as well as concerns that construction would make a tough business climate worse, they said.
"It's pretty evenly divided," said Angela Tersiguel, president of the Ellicott City Business Association, whose family operates a restaurant on the north end of Main Street, near one possible site for a garage.
Tersiguel said she opposes a garage and thinks that improved parking management is a better solution.
Shelly Harris, who operates Caplan's of Ellicott City, an antiques store on the street, agreed that there is no consensus among merchants on parking but that every business owner would like to see commerce grow.
"I would love to see a garage," she said.
Christopher J. Sikora, general manager of Sweet, a bakery at 8143 Main St., pointed out what he views as a problem with the study's suggestions.
"What it doesn't address is the psychological perception that there isn't enough parking in Ellicott City," he said.
The study showed that at a peak time of 8 p.m. Friday, 459 spaces were being used of the 594 existing spaces available along Main Street and in area lots, including one just across the Patapsco River in Baltimore County. On Saturday, 452 spaces were in use at the peak time of 6 p.m., when most of the retail stores closed for the day.
He said people could find parking, though an open space "might not have been just where you want it."
Street parking is free, with a two-hour limit, while lots provide a mix of free and metered spots. That might be backward, Connor said.
The authority might want to hire someone to more aggressively manage parking by offering incentives to park on the fringes of the district or in Circuit Court parking lots atop a nearby hill, the consultant said. That could result in prime spaces along lower Main Street turning over faster, possibly by adding parking meters.
Parking at the courthouse could be aided by a shuttle bus, Connor suggested. Restaurant or store patrons could be offered free parking for a return visit or other incentives, while employees and residents could be lured away from the most congested areas by lower parking fees.
Incentives are now reversed, he said, with prime spaces along Main Street available free, which encourages motorists to occupy them for longer periods or to move their cars to work around the two-hour limit.
The consultant's final report, to be submitted next month, will include cost estimates for garages on several sites, he said, along with other specifics.
The best place to build a garage would be the lot at the foot of Fels Lane, he said, where 365 spaces could be added, but that is close to the 1790 Thomas Isaac log cabin on Main Street.
The big lot behind the former stone post office on Main Street is another potential location for a 240-space garage, but the site has environmental issues and construction could severely disrupt business.
Del. Gail H. Bates, a Republican who represents Ellicott City and has repeatedly sought state bond money to start garage planning, said parking management might work now but not for the future.
"Eventually we will need that parking garage," she said.
Bates endorsed the idea of a parking shuttle to unused county-owned lots in the evenings.
"I don't want to end up with places going out of business because customers can't park," she said.
Sikora said he ran a shuttle bus service between Main Street and the courthouse lots on the Friday night of Midnight Madness, a shopping event just before Christmas, but it cost $125 an hour. The service was well used, he said, but suburban residents generally do not like buses.
One upshot of the consultant's recommendation is that it could leave the five-member revenue authority without a major project. The idea for establishing the body came in 2004 from then-County Executive James N. Robey, who is now a state senator.
Like similar long-standing entities in Baltimore and Montgomery counties, the authority can borrow money by selling bonds and would repay the debt from parking charges or other user fees.
Building a parking garage was expected to be the authority's first project, though other ideas, such as a garage at Howard Community College or specialized recreational facilities, have also been mentioned.
Robey, a Democrat, said that he still strongly supports a garage because it will be needed and that it would take at least three years to design and build a structure.
"We want to encourage people to come to Ellicott City," he said. "If people have to ride around looking for parking, they won't come."
County Council member Courtney Watson, a Democrat who represents Ellicott City, said that it makes sense to improve parking management now and that a garage might be needed later. Meanwhile, the merchants need to review all proposals, she said.
parking spaces in ellicott city
* Total spaces: 594
* Street spaces: 102
* Off-street spaces: 492
* Circuit Court lots (nearby but outside study area): 197