Board likes downtown projects despite parking issues

Plans for two downtown apartment buildings with ground-level retail space are likely to receive zoning approval, although concerns remain about the adequacy of off-street parking.

At the April 10 meeting, the Planning and Zoning Commission reached what is called a favorable consensus on both projects, indicating it would support the applications. Staff will now prepare approval resolutions to be formally voted on at a later meeting.

One project involves a four-story, 25-unit building with four retail spaces at 356-368 Howe Ave. that would replace the Donut Shop structure. The Riverwalk Place development would have a parking lot with 26 spaces.

The other is a four-story, 11-unit building with first-floor retail and a small office at 523 Howe Ave., the vacant lot just south of Shelton Pizza. It would have off-street parking for 11 cars.

Both developments were approved by creating Planned Development Districts, and the bulk of the new units will be one-room apartments.

Member Mark Widomski said the commission was "living in a fantasy world" by thinking each residential unit would need only one off-street parking space.

"There's not enough parking," he said.

People now stay away from patronizing businesses in the central business district due to parking hassles, Widomski said, and instead head to stores on Bridgeport Avenue because the newer development there has plentiful parking.

He said allowing new downtown residential development without enough parking will only make the situation worse.

Other members countered that downtown zoning regulations only require one parking space per living unit to encourage development, and the goal should be to spur private investment in an area that still has economic challenges.

Developing downtown "should be our focal point," said member Charles Kelly, adding the city has an obligation to create more public parking. He suggested a parking structure could be built on an existing city-owned lot. The city also should put up signs showing drivers where public lots are located, Kelly said.

Member Elaine Matto said no one benefits if projects by developers who are taking a risk downtown are voted down.

Chairman Virginia Harger said Mayor Mark Lauretti frequently points out ample public parking exists downtown, but everyone wants to park right next to where they are going.

Member James Tickey said the city hopes to add substantial new parking by working jointly with developers in the future. He said developers will realize creating more parking will enhance their projects.

"It's something we have to address," Tickey said. "We have to incorporate more parking downtown.

Planning consultant Anthony Panico said the city could require developers to pay a fee in lieu of providing adequate parking, with those funds helping to pay for public parking improvements.

P&Z agreed to send a letter to Lauretti stressing the need to create more public parking as downtown development picks up.