Cars line both sides of Biddeford's Main Street on Thursday. In November, the city gave approval to seek proposals for the design of a downtown parking structure — a move that has sparked both support and outcry from city residents. ALAN BENNETT/Journal Tribune

Cars line both sides of Biddeford’s Main Street on Thursday. In November, the city gave approval to seek proposals for the design of a downtown parking structure — a move that has sparked both support and outcry from city residents. ALAN BENNETT/Journal Tribune

BIDDEFORD — Parking has been a hotly-debated issue in Biddeford for years, but more so since the Biddeford City Council granted unanimous approval to seek proposals from consultants for the design of a downtown parking structure last month.

The undertaking has come both to the delight of some city residents who say there isn’t enough available parking, and to the chagrin of those who say the structure will cause a burden to the city’s taxpayers.

City officials say the decision was made in part to encourage larger businesses to move into the area.

City Manager Jim Bennett said the lack of parking downtown has recently resulted in two unidentified large-scale businesses — which he said could have provided upward of 650 total new jobs — being discouraged from coming to the area.

“I think that what you’re seeing is we’ve reached the tipping point that more people believe the garage needs to be built,” said Mayor Alan Casavant on Tuesday.

According to a 2012 downtown parking study, in consultation with Southfield, Michigan-based parking consultants Rich & Associates, there are 643 public on-and off-street parking spaces and 784 private off-street spaces in Biddeford’s downtown area.

The study found that Biddeford manages and controls 45 percent of the parking in the studied area, but said it’s desirable for a municipality to have control of at least 50 percent of the parking supply to effectively manage allocation, changing demand, marking pricing and efficiency of parking spaces.

“Currently Biddeford is not meeting this benchmark,” the study found.

The study, however, found that Biddeford’s parking had not reached maximum occupancy during a timed study of parking patterns. Peak occupancy observed for all on-and off-street parking was 49 percent between noon and 2 p.m. For all public parking both on-and off-street, parking reached a maximum 59 percent.

Between 4 to 6 p.m., occupancy dropped to 40 percent, “showing that there is currently not an evening parking problem.”

The consultants said motorists generally perceive off-street spaces with occupancies greater than 85 percent to be at capacity, during which time they’ll recirculate and seek other parking, but Biddeford’s occupancy rates didn’t reach that level at any point during the study.

Casavant said Tuesday the parking study is outdated, and doesn’t reflect the city’s growth since 2012 — including the influx of new businesses and residents in the city’s mill district.

“(The study) is already outdated because nobody has anticipated the growth we’ve been seeing over the past four years. It was a snapshot, but the snapshot is already blurred,” he said. “There’s a situation brewing that we should be ahead of the curve. We shouldn’t wait until we have a major problem, because we’re seeing the symptoms now. Ideally we’d have been doing this a couple years ago.”

The city has certainly seen growth over the past few years, with new businesses coming downtown and more people moving into the area.

According to a Sept. 20 presentation given by Bennett, commercial sales in the downtown area have been on average 60 percent higher than assessed values. Multifamily and residential properties in the downtown area are selling at an average 12 percent higher than the local assessed value.

The city’s current downtown valuation, as of Sept. 20, is $185,983,000, with a commercial value of $65,406,200. Based on current sales, an updated assessment of the update to the properties in the downtown area would be adjusted to $238,773,662, an increase of $52,790,662.

That new value would generate an additional $1,048,422.55 in property taxes, according to Bennett.

Bennett said Thursday the type of growth seen in Biddeford is positive, indicating that the time is right for a garage or other parking structure to be built.

“(Garages) obviously don’t pay for themselves, so the parking revenues will not pay for a parking garage unless you’re getting them to a place where you’re generating about $200 per spot per month,” Bennett said. “You have to have the increase in value contingent to the cost. That’s clearly what the strategy is here.” 

Bennett, a former Lewiston city manager during a period of time when multiple parking garages were constructed, said the structures were made possible by the doubling of the city’s state valuation. During that period of time, Bennett said, the city undertook development of more than 900,000 square feet of former mill space, similar to Biddeford’s current mill revitalization efforts.

A 2008 presentation given by Bennett in Lewiston reflects $3,386,493 in new property taxes paid following a $441,947,000 new investment in mill redevelopment between 2000 and 2008, in which Bennett said the parking structures were crucial.

“The big part of why the garages were built in (Lewiston) was to help redevelop a couple million square feet of mill space in the community, and parking was a major requirement,” he said.

Several city residents have publicly voiced their concerns about the garage at City Council meetings and on social media, saying it could cost taxpayer dollars.

“We have a tax rate right now that is getting into the stratosphere,” said resident Howard Hanson at the council’s Nov. 15 meeting. “To put another burden like this on the people who pay the taxes in this city, the homeowners, is going to be very difficult.”

Casavant stressed the project would not cost money to taxpayers. He said the project would be funded through a revenue bond, a municipal bond supported by the revenue from a specific project. They are used to finance income-producing projects and are secured by a specific revenue source — in this case, fees paid by motorists to use the structure.

“The fees from the parking structure would be used to pay back that bond,” Casavant said.

While many are on board with the project, Casavant said, it is hard to convince some residents the structure is both a necessary and good idea for Biddeford’s economic future. 

“There’s a local minority that’s essentially against it and a lot of the projects in the downtown,” he said. “This is sort of like teaching. You need repetition so that it begins to resonate with people, and that’s what we’ve been doing with the parking garage.

“We didn’t anticipate things happening quite as quickly as they’re happening,” he said.

— Staff Writer Alan Bennett can be contacted at 282-1535, ext. 329 or [email protected]

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