The Biddeford City Council voted Tuesday to build a parking garage on the site of the former Maine Energy trash incinerator, ending years of discussion about how to add more parking downtown.

The selection of the 8.5-acre riverfront lot as the location for the city’s only parking garage also marks the first development on the Lincoln Street property, which the city bought in 2012 for $6.65 million.

Councilors had considered three locations, including a downtown parking lot and a privately owned lot on the Pepperell Mill Campus.

City officials say the 400-space parking garage is necessary to foster further economic development at a time of revitalization for the mill town, but some residents and downtown business owners have challenged the assertion that the city needs a parking garage and question why Biddeford would foot the bill instead of a private developer.

When city leaders first broached the idea of building a parking garage a short time after the Maine Energy purchase, some residents bristled at the idea. Opponents even led a successful push for a referendum to ban parking meters downtown because meters had been mentioned by city officials as part of a parking management plan that would include a parking garage.

In the years since the purchase of the Maine Energy property, more than $100 million in new investment has been announced downtown. Those projects – including the Lofts at Saco Falls and the continued redevelopment of the sprawling Pepperell Mill Campus – have included new housing units, restaurants, stores and light manufacturing.

The former Maine Energy property is championed by city officials as a prime development spot that could further propel the city’s revitalization. They are confident Biddeford can attract a significant development project for the site, but say the city first needs to address the lack of downtown parking that has kept some employers away.

“It is essential for what comes next for our community,” Councilor Victoria Foley, who represents the ward that includes the downtown, said of the parking garage during the council meeting Tuesday.

The City Council also voted to hire Desman Design Management of Boston to design the parking garage, but a timeline for the next steps has not been outlined.

Of the three possible sites, the surface parking lot on Washington Street and the former Maine Energy facility are city-owned. The Pepperell site is privately owned.

A garage at any of the locations would cost from $10 million to $12 million and would be financed with bond revenue paid for with user fees and tax-increment finance district funds designated for downtown.

The council voted 6-3 in favor of the Lincoln Street location, with Councilors Laura Seaver, John McCurry and Robert Quattrone opposed.

“I feel that the arguments for this garage have often been that we need to have it to bring in business. I’m not positive,” Seaver said. She also said she didn’t think the council should make a decision Tuesday because there has not been enough public input.

Councilor Norman Belanger spoke at length during the meeting about the need for a garage and the council’s commitment to pay for it without using property tax dollars. He pointed out that taxpayers already pay for “free” parking lots and on-street parking spaces because the city has to maintain them, while a garage will be paid for by users. Downtown employees and mill residents will park in the garage, freeing up street parking for shoppers and diners, he said.

“I hear lots and lots of people complaining there is no parking downtown,” Belanger said. “The lack of parking is also slowing development downtown.”

The handful of residents who spoke during the council meeting questioned the need for a garage at all. Some disagreed that the Lincoln Street location is best and others worried that the city is considering instituting a fee for parking in several city-owned parking lots.

Resident Kathy Russell said she’d rather see a private developer pay for a garage. Downtown employee Taylor Parker said requiring people to pay to park would negatively affect small businesses.

Rick Robitaille of Louis Pizza said he is opposed to the city charging people to park in the Washington Street lot, which is next to his restaurant.

“My concern is if it’s a paid parking lot, people will avoid parking there and park in other areas where we don’t have much room at this point,” he said. “The mills are doing great, but Main Street itself is not doing very good. … Let’s work on Main Street and making it better so people have more of a reason to come to Biddeford.”

Gillian Graham can be contacted at 791-6315 or at:

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