The one-way stretch of Elm Street, commercial heart of downtown New Canaan and home to many of its most cherished (if in some cases struggling) local businesses, as soon as next week will lose 15 parking spaces due to its lack of compliance with a little-known state statute.
New Canaan long has operated outside a 1949 state law that says, “No vehicle shall be permitted to remain parked within twenty-five feet of an intersection or a marked crosswalk thereat.”
Yet recently, when the Department of Public Works removed the parking striping on Elm Street in order to put in a layer of protective seal, a resident put town officials on formal notice that the existing spaces violated that law, since they were too close to the five crosswalks on Elm between Main and Park Streets.
In all, after doing the math, New Canaan in bringing itself into compliance with the law will lose 13 spaces (and another two by increasing the width of angled parking by six inches per space—see below).
The town last week hired a Fairfield-based transportation consulting firm to find out just what could be done with the parking layout vis-a-vis the state requirement, but “it is what it is,” Police Deputy Chief John DiFederico said Wednesday night during a regular meeting of the Police Commission.
As the official local traffic authority in New Canaan, the Commission had to vote to change the parking configuration on Elm Street.
“Rock and a hard place,” Chairman Sperry DeCew said during the meeting, held at the New Canaan Police Department.
Commissioner Jim McLaughlin said he was “a little troubled” by the thought of losing parking spaces that are “at such a premium downtown.” McLaughlin said many hopeful shoppers and diners in New Canaan often circle Elm Street more than once seeking a space.
According to DiFederico, town public works officials needed a decision on the matter straightaway as the “microthin overlay” seal is going in on Elm Street next week.
McLaughlin said: “It’s a 50-year practice and now we have to change it in two days because someone sent an email?”
The rhetorical question captures the suddenness of a change that is sure to create new problems for downtown merchants and visitors.
Business owners, parking officials, the Chamber of Commerce and town long have worked toward easing the parking crunch downtown. Last year, the Parking Bureau created a new type of permit for employees of downtown business in order to move them off of the coveted Elm and Main Street spots designed to serve those who would patronize shops and restaurants. Recently, in listing their concerns about the (now defunct) Pop Up Park, some merchants noted that the makeshift gathering space eliminates about five or six parking spots for a matter of weeks.
The specter of losing parking spaces only emerged in the past two weeks, when the Board of Selectmen approved an otherwise under-the-radar $6,200 contract with Frederick P. Clarke Associates, Inc. “for a conceptual parking layout plan for Elm Street from Main Street to Park Street,” as the board’s July 10 meeting agenda had it (the selectmen approved the contract 3-0).
The 13 lost parking spaces break down like this: two at Main and Elm Streets (one on each side of Elm), five at South Avenue and Elm (where there are two crosswalks), four more midblock in front of the Playhouse (two at each end of the crosswalk there) and two at Elm and Park Street.
McLaughlin asked whether it would be possible for New Canaan to obtain a waiver of some kind in order to get out from under the law.
DiFederico answered that the “traffic engineer got feedback from the [Connecticut Department of Transportation] and no way, it is a 25-foot offset.”
“It is what it is,” he said again.
Ultimately, DeCew, McLaughlin and Commission Paul Foley voted 3-0 to make the changes.
McLaughlin asked who put New Canaan on notice about the town’s non-compliance. DiFederico said only “a citizen,” and declined to name the individual when asked by local media present at the meeting.
DiFederico said the idea behind the setback is, in part, to prevent vehicles from backing into a crosswalk.
McLaughlin asked about the accident history in the crosswalks on Elm Street, and DiFederico said only, “We have had pedestrians hit in the center of town before.”
DiFederico said town officials also have received feedback that the 10.5-foot width of the angled parking stalls on Elm Street are not wide enough. The Commission agreed—McLaughlin called those spaces “very tight” in some cases—and voted as part of its unanimous motion to allow DPW to make those spaces 11 feet wide (eliminating another two spaces on the street).