ST. ALBANS CITY — Monday night the St. Albans City Council approved a proposal to add parallel parking in front of 13 Maiden Lane, known variously as the Owl Club and the Smith Homestead.
The council approved the proposal in a vote of 5-2 with Ward 2 Alderman Jim Pelkey and Ward 5 Alderman Ryan Doyle dissenting.
Under the proposal, the Connor Group, a private developer, would construct 10 parking spaces in front of the building on what is now a combination of the city’s right-of-way and land owned by the Connor Group. The parking spaces would be entirely off of the current roadway, opening up space now used for parallel parking.
The Connor Group is proposing an 11,000-square-foot office building for the site. The permit for that project has been appealed to the Vermont Environmental Court.
With council approval, the diagonal parking can now be folded into the current litigation, explained Fred Connor of the Connor Group.
The parking proposal has been controversial, and the entire Design Advisory Board (DAB) voted against the proposal. Opponents have raised concerns about safety, the precedent of surrendering a portion of the city’s right-of-way to a private developer for private parking, and the aesthetics of the change.
The council previously asked that Vanasse Hangen Brustlin, Inc. (VHB) examine the proposal. VHB is the engineering firm working on both the downtown streetscaping project and the Federal Street multi-modal connector, which would extend Federal Street south to the Interstate 89 access road.
VHB recommended that the number of parking spaces be reduced in order to avoid motorists backing cars out of the parking spaces into the crosswalk at the intersection of Maiden Lane and Congress Street. Although the crossing is unmarked, it is legally a crosswalk, VHB noted in its report.
Members of the public have raised this concern at multiple meetings.
VHB recommended eliminating the two northernmost Maiden Lane parking spaces or “at least the first one, and possibly shifting the spaces to retain the second one.”
The first diagonal space must be at least 20 feet from the crosswalk in order to insure pedestrian safety, said the VHB analysis.
Maiden Lane is one way going south, reversing that would allow all 10 parking spaces to remain, VHB noted, adding it was not in a position to comment on the impact such a change would have on traffic flows.
VHB found the altered section of Maiden Lane would be wide enough to accommodate both parallel parking on the west side and diagonal parking on the east side.
Lastly, the firm recommended the sidewalks be at least 7 feet wide to allow two feet for car bumpers and five feet for pedestrians.
The parking proposal has had multiple changes over the past year. The most recent version presented to the city council last month included 10 diagonal spaces in front of 13 Maiden Lane, with five designated for the library and five assigned to the new building for a period of 10 years, after which they would revert to the city.
There are five public parallel spaces there now.
In response to concerns expressed by Doyle about discontinuous development along the street, with the parking and sidewalk on one-third of the street being markedly different from the rest, the Connor Group proposed diagonal parking in front of the library.
Currently, the library has six spaces located in a “horseshoe” pattern in front of the library. There are two curb cuts for the horseshoe, a situation commonly considered less than ideal.
However, city manager Dominic Cloud met with the Connor Group and the library yesterday to discuss the possibility of the city retaining five of the parking spaces being built by the Connor Group in front of 13 Maiden Lane. The city was being asked to give up both public spaces and the city’s right-of-way, said Cloud. “That’s not the right deal,” he stated. “We’re losing five parking spaces forever.”
The library, however, may not be willing to spend the funds to replace the horseshoe parking with diagonal spaces if the number of parking spaces for the library remains unchanged, explained librarian MaryPat Larrabee. The library board will consider the issue next week at its regular meeting.
If the library decides not to build diagonal parking, the city will be left with a “kinked” sidewalk, as it was described by Cloud, that will go from the northeast corner of Maiden and Congress, pass directly in front of the Connor building on Maiden Lane, and then turn west to meet up with the sidewalk in front of the library.
All other buildings on Maiden Lane have greenspace between the public sidewalk and the private space of the building.
Maiden Lane is a pedestrian route for families living in the city’s northeastern neighborhoods walking to the library, Taylor Park and the central and southern sections of downtown. It is used daily by students from Bellows Free Academy (BFA).
VHB did not say whether pedestrians will take the less direct route of the “kinked” sidewalk or the more direct route of walking behind the parked cars to get from the corner of Maiden Lane and Congress to the sidewalk in front of the library. Nor did the council consider that previously raised issue before taking a vote last night.
Chris Dermody, who chairs the city’s planning commission and DAB, proposed the city consider adding diagonal parking to Church Street or shift the diagonal parking to the west side of Maiden Lane.
Fred Connor said the Connor Group had considered putting diagonal parking on the west side of Maiden Lane, but the presence of utility equipment made such a change costly. “It works very well to keep it on our side of the street, ” said Connor.
Sue Prent, who owns land adjoining the Connor property and is one of the appellants challenging the Connor Group’s permit, said, “You’re talking a whole lot about cars. You’re not talking about the people who live on the street.”
The diagonal parking will compromise the driveway used by the Prents and residents of the Leahy building on the corner of Maiden Lane and Bank Street, Prent said. She also questioned the impact of adding diagonal parking in front of the library on residents of the Leahy building, whose children play on the front lawn.
“It may not seem like much to you, but it’s a neighborhood,” said Prent.
Nancy Hudak, a downtown businesswoman, urged the council to consider a parking solution for that entire section of the city. Hudak called the proposed changes “a Band-Aid solution to what is going to be a growing problem,” and asked the council to “come up with a plan that will serve the entire community and not just a single developer.”
There are 34 spaces located behind the Connor Group project, which is located in the city’s B1 business district. Businesses in the district are not required to provide parking. However, Cloud noted that the standard for office space is four parking spaces per thousand square feet.
The parking in front of the building allows the Connor Group to avoid adding an elevator to a two-story building. The company designed handicapped access to one floor from the front of the building and the other from the rear. Without approval of the parking plan, the company would have to create an alternative for handicapped accessibility.
During last night’s discussion, Ward 1 Alderman Tim Hawkins referred to a decision by a city zoning board on which he was serving to allow a home to be built with parking that blocked a public sidewalk. It was a decision Hawkins said he has always regretted. “I see this decision looking like that decision, the way it’s presented to us tonight,” he said.
Hawkins voted for the proposal.