It was a full house of nearly 100 concerned citizens in attendance at Tuesday night's Town of North Hempstead's board meeting. The main item on the agenda was adding more parking lots and spots to Port Washington – for commuters and merchants alike.
While discussions have been in play since 2005, the resolution to move forward on the appropriation of these new parking lots brought in a series of irate taxpayers, confused commuters and muffled merchants.
In total, four properties are being considered to house nearly 150 parking spots. The first is at 50 South Bayles Avenue. The second is an existing private parking lot on Haven Avenue and Bayview Avenue, across from the train station. The third is at Ohio Avenue and Port Washington Boulevard, commonly referred to as the Shields property. The fourth is at Main Street and Jackson Avenue, which was transferred from the town to the parking district. At one point there was a discussion of a tier-front garage, but that is no longer a consideration.
"That's a lot of money, and I just think that before you spend that, you need to have an exact plan," one resident said. "If you really look at the other available areas that you can rebuild, you're going to get more bang for your buck. I understand you want to get rid of the blight [the Shields property]."
The Shields property has been sitting on Ohio Avenue and Port Washington Boulevard for nearly 60 years. Now, it appears that the town will be able to upgrade the dilapidated land.
As far as how much the town paid for the blighted property – which has gotten a clean bill of health from the Nassau County Department of Health several times – it's somewhere around $900,000. This was after being negotiated down from "some ridiculous number, in the millions," said Councilman Fred L. Pollack.
"I think this is an ideal time to make long term investment," Supervisor Jon Kaiman said. "An investment like this made several years ago would have cost us millions of dollars….so it really is an opportunity when properties are at their lowest value and interest rates are extremely low." Rachel Gibbons, of 23 North Maryland Avenue in Port Washington, agrees that merchant parking is necessary, but also "doubts [the Shield's property] is worth a million dollars." "And that is what makes the tax payer in me become irate," she said. She believes the Shield property should be used for residential use and not commuter parking.
"We've already lost enough of our residential flavor," she said. "I want to go back to the law, which is that under the town law, if a property is going to be purchased by the town, as I understand, if it's not purchased for a particular district or a particularly specialized purpose, there has to be some sort of referendum, which means bigger publicity, open to more people who have to vote on whether that money is going to be floated for bonds."
She added: "I'd love to see it [the Shields property] made beautiful. I do wantto see our little neighborhood stay the way it is, which is lovely. And I do want to see our merchants flourish, but I don't want to see our tax payer money wasted and I walk past it [the Shields property] and I think, 'what the heck can you do with it?' I really hope everyone knows what they are doing."
Not all of the Shields property would necessarily become parking lots. "The Shields property is three separate lots, so therefore if someone came along and said I'd like to build a house on the Ohio lot, that might end up being something we could do," Kaiman said. "We might end up selling all three lots, I don't know. Right now, I know that we need merchant parking and that location is good for the overall plan for merchant parking and I know we need to get rid of this house."
Peter Varratos owns the property on 102 Main Street, and his main concern is merchant parking. "I'm a commercial owner and recently we lost our parking behind our building – that was the old Washington Mutual – so now we have a problem," he said. "We have available property but they just blocked us out and put posts on there so now I am trying to get a parking permit to park. I'm paying taxes, which I don't understand, and I can't get a parking permit. How is this $4 million increasing my property taxes and will I have a space to park?"
"There is no one solution that will work," Kaiman said. "There is possibly no combination of salutations that will be a panacea that will solve anything. However, based on the last five years of meetings, input, suggestions, studies and public comments and my own analysis and experience of this issue since 1994, I believe this proposal at least offers us one opportunity to make a veryreasonable and reasoned approach to solve both the commuter, merchantand shopper parking issues, or at least alleviate it significantly to make a contribution to the future of Port Washington."
Some in attendance called for additional commuter parking. But a resident of Port Washington for 30 years disagrees.
"I'm against any form of new commuter parking in this area," he said. "I've seen the traffic increase to an incredible amount. I am fearful everyday that I go to the train station that there is going to be a calamitous accident. People going through stop signs, traffic backed up onto Willowdale Avenue and beyond. I myself was hit as a pedestrian walking through the intersection of Mackey and Willowdale, where there are three stop signs, and I was walking through the crosswalk, was hit, knocked out and went to the hospital several years ago."
He added: "I believe the enforcement at the parking lot is inadequate. I see expired stickers on cars and I see no stickers on cars at all. The congestion is far too great and I believe that we should be looking at this. I think we should separate the issue of merchant parking from commuter parking. I am not happy about walking down Main Street and seeing blighted properties and empty lots and I think that merchant parking should be addressed. Commuter parking should not be increased."
Raising meter fees, handicapped parking, carpool spots, a bike rack and towing cars with out permits were also addressed at the meeting. Yet pressures on merchant and commuter parking – along with the associated economics – remained at the focus of Tuesday's meeting.
"We have thousands of people who have the permits and only a fraction of them can park on any given day," Kaiman said. "We've done analysis from the MTA, we've had public hearings on those analysis. We've done traffic studies, we've have engineers do reports on where the traffic is, where the parking is, up and down Main Street."
"We were going to build a tiered parking lot," he said. "A lot of people were highly opposed. The fact that it's probably $10 million cheaper is pretty compelling. Even though we don't get as many spots, we are easing the burden. We are mitigating the issue."
"We know that the merchants are struggling and from an economic standpoint, if the people can't park, the merchants can't sell their wares and then they can't pay their taxes, and it's a spiral downward. In order to keep Main Street vibrant, parking is critical. Any new Main Street that gets built, parking is one of the number one elements. And it is very expensive to build parking. Sometimes youhave to make that investment. That's the balance we've been pursuing. Ultimately, the hope is that we make some good decisions and we improve the community."
The committee voted to move forward with the resolution.