Princeton’s downtown parking debate is getting heated.
An emotional exchange erupted during the March 28 meeting of the Princeton City Council in a debate over downtown parking. Princeton has had discussions about downtown parking issues on and off over the years. Coming out of those discussions was the construction of parking lots in front of the two downtown malls built in the early 1980s. Now the discussion has flared up again.
On Thursday, March 28, the council voted 4-1 to table any action dealing with a recommendation from the city’s Economic Development Authority (EDA) to put up 16 signs in the downtown that would state “Customer Parking Only Please.” The recommendation did not suggest an ordinance to enforce the signs.
The council began taking up the downtown parking subject on March 7 when downtown business owner Kelly Guptil and Chamber of Commerce President Scott Berry approached the council about stopping the practice of people parking in front of businesses all day.
The Planning Commission hosted a lengthy discussion on March 18. When the EDA took up the issue, it led to its recommendation for the 16 signs.
The EDA suggested there should be two signs per block on each side of Rum River Drive between Second Street North (NAPA Auto Parts corner) to Second Street South (Coffee Corner), and along Fist Street from Sixth Avenue North (Cook’s Flooring) to Fourth Avenue North (library area).
Council members Thom Walker and Victoria Hallin, who also serve on the EDA, said they stand by the EDA’s sign recommendation. The rest of the council – Mayor Paul Whitcomb, Dick Dobson and Jules Zimmer – voiced dissent with that approach.
The council was discussing parking again because of its promise at the end of its March 7 parking discussion to revisit the issue after having city staff members check out what some other cities have been doing with their downtown parking.
Guptil, who has a downtown business called Louise’s Basement and who manages Ossell’s, took issue with some of the council members recommending that the downtown business owners work out parking issues among themselves. Whitcomb led off the discussion, stating, “I suggest we do nothing and let the downtown try to work it out.”
Dobson responded that he had given the topic a lot of thought since March 7 and said, “I tend to agree with the mayor.” Dobson said that when he questioned a number of business people about downtown parking, some said there was a problem and others said there wasn’t.
Zimmer said it would be “senseless” to put up signs that had no enforcement behind them. Whitcomb said he didn’t think Princeton police would have the time to enforce the suggested parking rules. Guptil, meanwhile, objected to the parking problem being characterized as just a business-to-business issue.
“It’s about the health of the downtown and customers and the community being able to take part in what the downtown has to offer,” she said. “I can’t do it alone (in trying to solve the issue).” Guptil declared that she had been “lambasted” by a letter to the editor in the local newspaper concerning her complaints about downtown parking.
Hallin suggested that having signs asking for customer parking only would be a “visual reminder.”
Dobson argued that the signs would not deter people from parking where they want and that if citations were issued, it would get “expensive.”
A city could set whatever citation amount it wants, Guptil responded.
Police Chief Payne disagreed. He said that a citation would have to be $100 and then the ticket holder would also have court costs.
Walker said that the purpose of the signs would not be citations, but more of a reminder.
A heated exchange broke out between Guptil and Mitzi Mellott and Wendi Wicktor when Guptil said it was not just Guptil’s business location that was having problems with long-term parking out in front. Guptil said that it just turned out she was the only one of the downtown retailers willing to stand up and speak out publicly on the issue.
Payne said Guptil could have been a better leader through example in resolving downtown parking issues. He explained that her suggesting some people just park along Sixth Avenue was not the best solution.
Within seconds of the exchange, Dobson made a motion to delay acting on the EDA’s sign recommendation until the council began its annual budget discussions in late summer. It passed on a 4-1 with Walker casting the dissenting vote. Walker was asked after the meeting why he voted no on the motion, and he said he didn’t want to see any council action delayed that long.