Consultant recommends selling some downtown lots for lakefront development
There is such a glut of available parking in downtown Port Washington that the community could sustain twice as much business as it currently has, according to a study unveiled last week.
“Port Washington has a huge parking problem,” consultant Jason Schrieber of Nelson Nygaard said Feb. 19 as he unveiled the study results last week. “You have way too much of it.”
At the peak of a typical weekday last summer, during the city’s busiest season, there were 600 open spaces downtown, he said.
There is so much parking that Schrieber recommended the city look at the land it owns east of Franklin Street and consider selling some of it for development, noting that the marina lot is underused on weekdays and barely at 50% on weekends.
“If you allow this to happen, it will happen,” Schrieber said. “It would be the coolest thing on the lake.
“Parking should just not at all be on the table for discussion.”
The current mass of asphalt parking lots on the lakefront is unattractive and doesn’t draw people to the city’s biggest asset, Schrieber said.
“Your future should absolutely be about how to make a plan that will be attractive to development and residents,” he said.
“You need a built environment that makes this street to the water a destination. There is just a big gap (between downtown and the lakefront). You don’t need to worry about parking from Franklin Street to the lakefront.”
He suggested the city consider using half the marina parking lot for a carnival for one year as a trial to see what can be done and how it would change the downtown.
One woman expressed concern about developing the lakefront and the impact it would have on a festival like Fish Day.
“Fish Day will happen even if this (development) is here,” Schrieber said, noting events can be moved elsewhere on the lakefront. “It’s one day a year.”
Schrieber said the city’s biggest parking issue isn’t the number of spaces available, but managing those that are sought by most people.
Parking is at a premium on the southern end of Franklin Street in the morning, when people stop at the coffee shop and Harry’s and shop at nearby stores, and at the north end of the street in the evening when people frequent the restaurants there, he said.
“Any parking problem is directly related to economic activity,” Schrieber said.
To better manage parking, he said, the city should unify its parking regulations and charge people a premium to use the places they most want to park — Franklin Street — instead of setting limits on how long they park.
Parking spaces off the main road could be free or used for less money, he said.
“Pricing is what manages this resource better,” Schrieber said. “Price is like a commodity, higher at peak times. The value of parking is all about (proximity to a shop’s) front door.”
But Karen Poull, who with her husband Mark “Chico” owns Schooner Pub, questioned whether people in Port would be willing to pay a premium for parking to visit local shops.
“I can’t believe people would pay it here,” she said.
The city removed parking meters downtown about 15 years ago, in part because of people’s complaints about having to plug them constantly, several people noted.
“The people who don’t like pricing are the merchants, the employees,” Schrieber said. “Let them park out back (where there is free parking in less desirable spaces).”
Half the street spaces currently being used are taken by employees, he said.
The parking study, which was commissioned by the city and its Business Improvement District, will now go to the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission — which gathered the raw data — for review and specific recommendations.
It will then be reviewed by city officials and the recommendations sent to the Common Council and its committees for consideration.
“I’m not telling you there’s an easy road ahead,” Schrieber said. “But this is definitely the beginning of the discussions.”
John Sigwart, who attended the unveiling of the study, told the Business Improvement Board Friday that the city should take the recommendations seriously, particularly those regarding the potential sale of lakefront
land. That could bring needed residents to downtown as well as retail spaces.
When he was city engineer, Sigwart said, a study listing vacant street right of way near the lakefront was presented to the Board of Public Works.
That list should be updated and brought to the Plan Commission with an eye toward what should remain parking and what could be sold for development, he said.
“When you see how much land the city owns, your jaws will drop,” Sigwart said. “If it doesn’t have any long-term interest for the city, maybe it should be sold. We’re not talking about the 10-year vision for the city
but the 30-year vision.”
Some people will take issue with the idea of selling lakefront land, Sigwart acknowledged.
“The perception is you’re taking something from the public,” he said.
That isn’t the case, Sigwart said, since the city would be selling the land for development, which would benefit everyone.
Mayor Tom Mlada said he is willing to consider the matter, particularly for land the city may not need in the long term.
“I think the right kind of development down there, to scale, keeping in mind the historic value and charm of the city, could help our tax base and increase the viability of the downtown year-round,” Mlada said.
“It’s something we need to be open to. That right kind of development is going to lead to greater things for our community. I really believe this is a unique opportunity for us.”
But the first step would be to do long-term planning for the downtown and lakefront, Mlada said.
“We have to be the ones driving the ship,” he said, otherwise developers will come in with concepts that may not fit with the city’s vision.
The study provides hard facts that fly in the face of conventional wisdom, and that is its value, Mlada added.
“It confirms that we have an awful lot of parking available relative to the size of our downtown,” he said, and the city needs to decide what to do about that. “I’m not sure I’ve ever gone to a destination and said, ‘God, they’ve got good parking.’”