By Elizabeth F. McNamara

The Town Council, which is planning to hire a consultant to study downtown parking in the near future, got a sense of the problem at its meeting last week, when Town Planner Lisa Bourbonnais gave an overview of the downtown parking scene from 1995 to today.

To the basic question – does East Greenwich have a parking problem? – the answer was, yes. 

According to Bourbonnais, when you count up all the properties on Main Street and how much each property needs in terms of parking, you come up with 2,225 spaces. The actual number of spaces on Main Street and the one block to the east and to the west of Main Street, is 1,398 spaces. 

Which makes for a deficit of 827 parking spaces. 

“We just did raw counts so we could understand the scope of the problems,” Bourbonnais told the Town Council. By raw counts, Bourbonnais was referring to the number of parking spaces the town requires depending on a property’s type of use. And, the fact is, the uses have changed a lot in the past 25 years. 

In 1995, Main Street was plagued by vacancies, Bourbonnais said. To counter that, the town launched a revitalization program, including sidewalk improvements and grants to business owners to fix up their properties. Retail gave way to more restaurants and developers started adding more residential units on and near to Main Street.

The 1995 revitalization efforts were a success; Main Street started to bustle.

However, retail and residential tend to cohabit nicely in terms of parking needs – retail establishments usually close up around the time residents return from work and need to park. Out with one car and in with another. 

In the past 25 years, a lot of retail gave way to restaurants and bars on Main Street.

When more coffee shops, bars, and restaurants came in, not only did those spots require more parking then, say, a gift shop (that “type of use” metric), they would require those parking spots well into the evening. 

“Now you don’t have complimentary, synergistic activities; now they compete [for parking],” Bourbonnais explained. 

However, the 800+ parking space deficit isn’t the whole story, she said. The Planning Department’s focus on Main Street and the one block to the east and west left out the municipal lot next to Swift Community Center, which has 110 spaces, and the Baptist Church lot, which has 24 spaces, both on Peirce Street.

There were 14 eating establishments with liquor licenses downtown (Main Street and the waterfront) in 2005. By 2015, there were 26 such businesses. In 2018, there were 32.

Also, East Greenwich requires restaurants to have one space for every two diners, but many other towns have a one-space-for-every-three-diner rule. If EG were to shift to one space for every three diners, that would decrease the deficit by nearly 300 spaces. 

But even with these accommodations, Main Street is still looking at a parking space deficit in the hundreds. 

In 2005, after the parking situation started to tighten, the town hired Pare Engineering to do a parking study of Main Street, Bourbonnais said. Ultimately, Pare said the town didn’t really have a parking problem, noting that every time they came to town they were able to find a parking space close by to where they were going. Bourbonnais pointed out last week that Pare appeared to only come to town during daytime hours, while the real crunch time for parking certainly today is in the evening.

But Pare did offer some suggestions to improve things. First, they noticed that many Main Street shopkeepers and their employees were parking right in front of their stores. The town talked to shop owners and they started to change that behavior. Pare also recommended highlighting the parking the town already had, another relatively easy fix. The town added signage and re-striped parking spots. 

But a lot has changed since 2005. There were 14 eating establishments with liquor licenses downtown (Main Street and the waterfront) in 2005. By 2015, there were 26 such businesses. In 2018, there were 32. 

“We all want this vibrant, active Main Street, but there’s a lot of tension there,” Bourbonnais said.

The Zoning and Planning boards discussed the Planning Department’s parking presentation in October. These were areas of agreement coming out of that session: 

  • Current regulations should be enforced before any new regulations are put in place; 
  • A new parking study is needed as soon as possible;
  • A valet ordinance is needed as soon as possible.

Valet has been one way restaurants have been able to open on Main Street, since many of them do not have their own parking lots. Instead, starting about 10 years ago, the town has allowed restaurants to use valet services to park cars off-site. However, sometimes “off-site” for a valet driver in a hurry can be Main Street, among other issues that have come up in recent years.

“If we’re going to do it correctly, it’s going to be a very comprehensive, involved study,” said Town Manager Andrew Nota. “I think it would come back with solid deliverables,” including improving sidewalks and figuring out how to slow down drivers. Nota said the study would involve public work sessions and would aim to engage residents and business owners in the process.

But that will take time, he said. First the Town Council must approve a request for proposal (RFP), then vote on a company to conduct the study. The study itself would take place over the summer and include evenings, to get the full sense of the need, with results sometime next fall. Realistically, Nota said, the council wouldn’t be acting on the findings until next year around this time. 

Because of that timeline, the Town Council is planning to act sooner on a few pressing parking-related issues:

  • Short-term commercial parking
  • Additional overnight resident parking
  • Non-required valet parking (on street valet parking) – businesses that use it because they want to not because their license requires it.

Bourbonnais acknowledged that finding solutions to the parking issue would be challenging but praised the council’s commitment. “It’s a tough needle to thread,” she said, “ but I think you have given it a level of effort we haven’t seen.”

Check out the Planning Department’s study here: 2020 Downtown Parking Overview.