A parking experiment that grew out of the COVID-19 pandemic appears to be solving a problem that long has vexed municipal officials.
New Canaan has tried several ways in recent years to get those who work in offices, shops and restaurants downtown to park in paid lots rather than taking up free on-street parking in the heart of the business district that’s designed to serve shoppers and diners. Four years ago, the town launched a new program where employees of local businesses could get special permits for the Morse Court or Park Street Lots, and some have suggested installing meters on Main and Elm Streets.
As the pandemic set in one year ago, New Canaan pulled back entirely on paid parking—making all metered and permitted lots completely free, and pulling back on most enforcement of parking rules. Since then, enforcement has been gradually re-introduced as have requirements to pay to park in some of the metered and permitted lots.
In the course of those changes, downtown workers have been invited to participate in a six-month experiment where they can apply for a permit to park for free in two of New Canaan’s municipal lots located just a block away from the heart of the downtown, Locust Avenue and Center School.
“It has turned out to be spectacularly successful, and we think we have solved the problem by giving free parking to people who work downtown,” First Selectman Kevin Moynihan said during the Feb. 23 meeting of the Board of Selectmen.
He noted again during the Feb. 24 Town Council meeting, “The Center School Lot is our most inefficient lot and always has been, because people don’t want to walk over from there over to Elm Street, Main Street, Park Street. But then we started an experiment in January by giving free parking to workers downtown in both the Center School Lot and Locust. And that has been very successful in finally solving the problem of encouraging workers not to take more spaces closer to where we want shoppers and restaurant-goers to park.”
His comments came during general updates at each meeting about the status of a draft agreement between the town and New Canaan Library, which is seeking a $10 million contribution from the town toward its estimated $35 million rebuilding project. Under the draft agreement, the library will lease 76 spaces in the Center School Lot for use by patrons of the new facility.
Moynihan noted during the selectmen meeting that those spaces would not be reserved for library staff members.
Those 25 or 26 people “would always be off-site and not permitted to park in Center Lot unless we agree to waive that in the future.”
He added, in response to a question about the Farmers Market that “because of what we did with free parking, it has really made it impossible to accommodate the Farmers Market at the Center lot.
“We are going to accommodate the Farmers Market, probably in the Lumberyard or the Playhouse [Lot]. But we definitely want to keep it downtown. The suggestion to move it to Waveny Park is one that would probably be controversial and one that is probably unnecessary because people want the Farmers Market downtown. But again the town’s decision to make free parking available, which is a good working solution for downtown, is what has caused the problem with the Farmers Market, not the library dedication of 76 spaces.”
Moynihan told the Town Council that New Canaan “most likely will not need to change the Center School Lot once the library opens.”
A study will be conducted after the opening of the new facility to see whether more spaces are needed in the lot—they could increase from 173 to as many as 272, Moynihan said—and if any work is needed to do that, the library would pay for the work, he said.
Annual parking permits for New Canaan’s commuter lots, which expired last June, have been extended through March, though the town may extend them even further. Metered spaces in commuter lots also have been suspended through the end of this month.
Those holding permits for the Morse Court, Park Street and Telephone lots have been able to renew them on a pro-rated basis for six months through the end of this fiscal year.
Metered parking fees and enforcement in downtown lots resumed Jan. 1. Rules for timed street parking, loading zones, no parking zones, disabled spaces and any other illegal parking are being enforced.