ST. ALBANS CITY — The St. Albans City Council on Monday night gave preliminary approval to diagonal parking in front of the Owl Club/Smith Homestead and the St. Albans Free Library on Maiden Lane.
Council members unanimously approved a motion instructing the city staff to prepare the necessary paperwork and have the parking plan evaluated by Vanasse Hangen Brustlin, Inc. (VHB) the engineering firm that designed the downtown streetscape project and is working on the Federal Street multi-modal connector.
The plan will still require final approval from the city council.
The Connor Group, which owns the Owl Club, had previously proposed diagonal parking in front of that site to accompany a proposed 11,500-square-foot office building. That project’s fate now lies with the Vermont Environmental Court.
The Connors proposed replacing the five parallel spots currently on Maiden Lane with 10 diagonal spots, five of which would be assigned to the library. That part of the proposal is unchanged.
The new proposal adds replacing the library’s horseshoe parking area with diagonal parking and restoring green space in front of the library.
“We’ve always been concerned about parking,” said MaryPat Larrabee, the library’s executive director.
When the horseshoe shaped lot was constructed it was the best the library could manage on its property, said Larrabee. But it is not as safe as diagonal parking in front of the library would be, she said.
Ward 5 Alderman Ryan Doyle said he parks on Maiden Lane several times a week, mostly when visiting the library, and finds the on-street parking will fill up before the horseshoe parking because people avoid parking there.
“The library really needs something different,” said Doyle.
Under the new plan, the library would have 11 diagonal parking spaces.
The Connor Group has offered to provide construction management for the library’s portion of the project free of charge. However, the library would still need to pay for the construction itself. Larrabee said the price has not yet been determined.
New sidewalk totaling 194 feet would be constructed in front of the 16 diagonal spaces.
In June, the Connor Group proposed constructing 10 spaces in front of the Owl Club, and then leasing them from the city for 10 years. In addition, the firm would construct a sidewalk on the Owl Club property and grant the city an easement for public use. The city would plow the sidewalk, but the Connor Group would otherwise maintain the walk.
Those terms remain part of the proposal.
Peter Ford, a member of the Design Advisory Board (DAB) and one of the appellants challenging the Connor Group’s permit, said diagonal parking at the site would be a material change. “It would not look the way it does now,” said Ford.
Regardless of the design of any new building on the site, Ford said the parking should all be in the rear of the building.
His comments were echoed by others, who asked why the library parking could also not be in the rear of the building.
The Connor’s project is located in the B1 business district, where no on-site parking is required, because it is assumed parking will be primarily on the street.
Mike Connor said the Connor Group is attempting to avoid adding to the demand for on-street parking by having parking in the rear of the building. There are 35 to 37 spaces there.
Cheryl Malcolm was among the people who asked why parking was needed at the front of the building given the parking at the rear.
The front parking is needed for handicapped accessibility, answered Fred Connor.
The design for the new building has two floors with each floor having its own handicapped accessible entrance, eliminating the need for an elevator. Without handicapped parking at the front of the building an elevator would have to be added, considerably increasing the cost.
Fred Connor also said the Connor Group has considered offering the library use of the rear parking during evenings and weekends, but no formal agreement has been reached. The only location for handicapped accessible parking for the library is at the front of the building, he added.
Doyle expressed concern about sight lines for drivers pulling onto diagonal parking spaces on their left. Maiden Lane is a one way street. He suggested reverse diagonal parking might be a solution.
The Messenger researched parking safety after the June meeting and found a consensus among traffic experts that parallel parking is safer for pedestrians and cyclists. Reverse diagonal parking in which the driver backs into the parking space was proposed in several studies as a way for communities to achieve the greater density allowed by diagonal parking, while preserving the safety of parallel parking.
Asked if they had considered reverse diagonal parking, Fred Connor said, “We’re very comfortable with the safety of the parking design.”
The parking was designed by Ruggiano Engineering, which Connor asserted also designed the downtown streetscape projected completed this year. However a Messenger review of the streetscape obligations showed that Ruggiano Engineering oversaw the construction of the streetscape project, but it was designed by VHB.
As part of the design, VHB eliminated all locations, on both sides of Main Street, where cars backing out of a diagonal parking space crossed a crosswalk. The Connor’s proposal would require that cars in one of the spaces be backed into the crosswalk for Congress Street pedestrians at the end of Maiden Lane.
Jeff Bean, a member of the DAB, reiterated his previous concern that granting a private company use of the city’s right of way for parking sets a bad precedent.
Chris Dermody, chair of the DAB, reminded the council that the DAB unanimously opposed the Connors’s proposal for diagonal parking on Maiden Lane.
The diagonal parking proposal would alter the historic views from Maiden Lane, noted Dermody. He, too, proposed parking for the library be located behind the building.
Mike Connor said the new building, if approved, would cost about $500,000 for the shell and $1 million for fittings. “The first question by tenants is: Where am I going to park?” he said.
“This is sound planning to identify and provide enough parking,” said Connor.
He also said his company will never restore the Smith House, the portion of the Owl Club built in 1820 by John Smith, and that the building would be sold if a buyer stepped forward.
Between the cost of purchasing the site and costs incurred since, the Connor Group has $350,000 invested, he said, and would be willing to sell for $550,000, and thereby walk away from the project as proposed.