Parking: Whose problem?

It should come as no surprise that downtown Bar Harbor is facing an increasing challenge to provide adequate parking availability during the busy summer months. In June 2010, town meeting voters approved the elimination of a requirement that downtown businesses provide a minimum number of parking spaces. Many of the largest businesses, including a 900-seat theater and whale watch vessels that generate demand for many hundreds of spots each day, had been insulated from those rules. The unfairness of making someone just wanting to open a gift shop or install a few more tables in their restaurant was clear. The prevailing logic held that if a business wanted to expand without parking, they were assuming the risk associated with that decision.

After the rules were relaxed, the predicted wave of downtown investment and expansion followed. Restaurants added patio areas and second levels of seating. Buildings soon were erected or expanded, often taking up land used for parking. As the number of businesses and their capacities have grown, so too has the demand for parking by employees and customers.

That downtown building boom continues. Millions of dollars currently is being spent on new and renovated commercial property in Bar Harbor’s downtown. Just this winter alone, a replacement, three-story West Street Café is being built. Atlantic Brewing is building a brewery and tasting room on Cottage Street, while the Side Street Café on Rodick is getting bigger. New retail space is rising on Main Street where the facade of the former Domus Isle shop has been preserved, the Acadia Hotel is expanding, and the former Opera House restaurant has been approved for demolition and replacement with retail space.

The eventual replacement of the former Rockhurst Motel with a new, three-story inn is in the permitting process. Work also may begin soon on other commercial rehabilitation and replacement projects.

While that all provides a healthy economic boost, including a positive effect on the town’s property tax base, it does not come without a cost. Bar Harbor is currently considering whether to impose paid parking downtown with an eye toward eventually using that revenue to help underwrite a multi-story parking garage.

In the meantime, instituting paid parking undoubtedly will shift pressure elsewhere, thereby pushing some of the commercial district’s problems into residential areas where a system of permits would be imposed.

Parking requirements were dropped with the hope that would shift more people to use of the Island Explorer shuttle buses. Ridership on the routes between the downtown and hotels and campgrounds on the outskirts has soared. But that has created its own problems. The system may not be able to ramp up its offerings sufficiently to keep pace.

Should the town decide to begin an aggressive paid-parking strategy, it is only fair to examine whether or not those moves will provide only a temporary solution. Should the current pace of growth continue, a decade from now, even paid parking, residential permits and a parking garage may be inadequate to meet the demand.

The quality of life in residential neighborhoods already is fragile. Before the town suspends traditional parking patterns and spends considerable political capital and money to build a new parking garage, is it not time to take a collective deep breath and attempt to address the fundamental question? When is enough, enough? Are there other options?

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