Editorial: Shelburne presented with a parking solution that suits the village

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Maybe Shelburne Falls doesn’t have a parking problem after all, but rather a perception problem.

Consultants who conducted a parking study last summer have concluded the Shelburne side of the village probably has enough downtown parking spaces to satisfy its needs — if only visitors and locals knew where the empty spaces were.

This probably comes as a relief to residents who fear a heavy-duty solution like a parking garage, which would be incongruous in the village.

The consultants noted that at peak parking hours, between 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., parking spaces on both Bridge Street, the main street on that side of the Deerfield River, and the public lot behind it, are at least 90 percent full, while free public lots farther away off Deerfield Avenue, Cross Street and near the old Arms Academy, rarely climb beyond 30 percent full.

“You definitely have a parking problem in your core area, if you come into town not knowing there are other spaces,” consultant Liza Cohen explained to the Selectboard recently.

Selectboard members hoped the study would help the town better plan for parking needs of future retail and residential growth in the village, and it sounds like the study provided just the right guidance, suggesting something in scale with the downtown.

Before creating more parking lots or structures in the walkable village area, with its close cluster of historic buildings, the study recommends making better use of the existing lots. This makes perfect sense, sounds like it will work and won’t require paid parking to finance it.

The study found that downtown parking overall is no more than 54 percent utilized — if you count the lesser known and less used lots off Cross Street and Deerfield Avenue. But the problem is that “everybody wants to park on Bridge Street,” Cohen said.

This observation would be discouraging if people avoided those distant lots because they refused to walk the extra distance. But, happily, during a public outreach session, consultants learned that many people didn’t use the outlying lots because they didn’t know there were there. Those surveyed said they wouldn’t mind parking farther away and walking to Bridge Street, if they knew where the other lots were.

Village planners are right to seek to preserve the classic features that make the village special and draw tourism. That includes old-fashioned, free diagonal parking on Bridge Street. 

If the overall parking supply downtown can handle tourism traffic, then we agree with consultants that the sensible solution to the “parking problem” is to promote the secondary lots.  Suggestions included putting up more signs directing motorists to lesser-known parking lots; putting lighting and a walkway to and from the Deerfield Avenue lot, designating parking for buses, and creating a parking area map that could be linked online to the village website, www.shelburnefalls.com.

We’d also suggest placing very visible copies of the maps at key spots on Bridge Street to guide confused motorists. It might be more helpful than just parking directional signs. We know from experience that tourists are more likely to travel down a side street if they can see on a map the the size and location of the off-street parking lot.

This seems like a great solution for residents and visitors alike — a relatively inexpensive and unobtrusive fix for a downtown that relies on its charm. It’s that charm that keeps the tourism dollars coming and makes Shelburne Falls such a joy to live in or near.