Niagara-on-the-Lake councillors say they’re open to discussing parking concerns raised by local business owners, employees and tourists but the issue isn’t likely to be resolved anytime soon.
Lord Mayor Betty Disero said she doesn’t think offering free parking in a low season would make a big difference and she doesn’t want to lose parking revenue if the impact of that decision would be “minimum.”
“People want to be right on Queen Street and I don’t think if we stop charging for parking, it’s going to encourage tourists to come,” she said.
The town is looking at different possibilities, said Coun. Wendy Cheropita, noting town councillors are aware of the issue and it will be addressed.
She isn’t a big fan of adding more parking but would prefer to see the town try more innovative solutions, like shuttling people in from other areas such as Virgil, where there is more available land.
“To take valuable, expensive land like we have in Old Town and turn it into a parking lot that would not be my first choice,” she said. “When you’re taking a beautiful landscape and beautiful properties and think about turning that into a parking lot, you have to think, ‘Is that the best use of that land?’ ”
Instead, perhaps such valuable land could be used to accommodate senior residents or used as a transitional care complex, she said.
The idea of having more “tucked-in” parking, which would not be as visible, sounded reasonable, Cheropita added, but she couldn’t think of any areas where it would be possible.
People’s stories and anecdotes about their parking experience need to be backed up by factual data, said Coun. Clare Cameron.
“If something is going to change with parking in the downtown area, I want to make sure that council is doing it in a proactive way rather than a reactive way,” she said in a phone interview.
“People may feel there’s no parking available. Sometimes what it really means is there’s no available parking immediately in front of the place they’re trying to get to. And that’s a different issue.”
She said she is interested in exploring a shuttle service option as well as using more ridesharing services such as Uber, and encouraged any concerned residents to make a presentation to council.
“If a heritage, historical feel is something that draws people to Niagara-on-the-Lake, the town doesn’t look very historic when it’s full of cars,” Cameron said. “In order to maintain that positive experience for the people that visit and give them an appealing experience, we need to get the right balance.”
Couns. Allan Bisback, John Wiens and Norm Arsenault suggested having a parking area, somewhere near downtown, where Old Town employees can park their vehicles without taking up spaces on Queen Street or on side streets.
Bisback also proposed having a shuttle service that would bring visitors into town and help relieve the congestion.
Wiens said he is a strong believer in “peripheral parking” and while having underground parking would be “outstanding,” he said it would be too expensive to make it work.
Bisback echoed Disero’s comments, saying he wasn’t sure if free parking would “stimulate the business downtown” and that increasing parking rates isn’t a solution for him but creating more spaces is one way to tackle the issue.
Council has also asked town staff to look at adding more metered parking spots at Wellington Street across from the old hospital, he said.
“That’s more of a congestion issue rather than a parking issue,” Bisback said.
“The real issue isn’t how we resolve the parking. I think the real issue is what we want to be from a tourist point of view, what kinds of people we want to attract to this town and how we build the infrastructure to do that.”
While an idea of a parking garage was OK to him, there is a shortage of land in town, Arsenault said, noting Parks Canada won’t give up land near Fort George or where the Upper Canada Lodge is located. There isn’t much land available in downtown either, he added.
“Parks Canada doesn’t give away land, it’s as simple as that. You may be able to lease some land but they’re not going to give it to you for a parking lot,” he said.
“There is no real short-term solution.”
Chamber vice-chair Andrew Niven said the organization is committed to working on a solution that will work for local residents and businesses.
“Niagara-on-the-Lake has always done it’s best when working together and it will only succeed if we are innovative, positive in our communications, open-minded and of course willing to do the work together,” Niven said in an email response.
Parking has always been a challenge, said Coun. Gary Burroughs, who said he wasn’t in favour of creating more parking lots in Old Town and he wants to see where council stands in its deliberations at the moment before commenting any further.
Coun. Stuart McCormack declined to comment.