Express Sessions Parking Conversation Shows Need for Wider Vision

The panel - Lisa Field, Ken Dorph, Jim Larocca, David Lys, Fred W. Thiele Jr. and Ethan Kent - listens to the first question posed by moderator Bryan Boyhan during the Express Sessions - "Parking in Sag Harbor" at the American Hotel on Friday, March 23. Michael Heller photo

In a room filled with about 60 guests, about five people raised their hands on Friday when asked if they thought Sag Harbor had a shortage of parking spaces for everyone — residents and visitors alike — in the village.

That’s why the conversation evolved around creating a wider approach for managing parking, pedestrian and bicycle accessibility and transportation in general in Sag Harbor during Friday’s Express Sessions, the third in a series of panel discussions hosted by The Sag Harbor Express at The American Hotel.

“Parking should not be piecemeal,” said Ken Dorph, one of the panelists, who is a member of a community group tackling transportation issues. “If we only look at parking, we will only have cars. We have plenty of parking, but it’s poorly utilized.”

That community group, dubbed the Sag Harbor Transportation Committee, has urged the village to spend 5 percent of its highway budget on walkways and bike paths and launch a permit system for residents with resident-only parking areas. Mr. Dorph also urged the village to institute paid parking.

Panelist Ken Dorph speaks during the Express Session on Parking in Sag Harbor at the American Hotel. Michael Heller photo

“If we subsidize cars to park, they’ll park everywhere,” he said. “Charging for parking makes it rationalized. There will be higher turnover. There’s no reason we can’t do this. It would pay for itself.”

But Sag Harbor Village Trustee James Larocca, another one of Friday’s panelists, said he was firmly against paid parking and cautioned against a program that involved more staff and financial resources to process and enforce.

“There is a disinclination to do anything that has a big tax impact, frankly,” Mr. Larocca said. “Every scheme that involves telling people where and how to park will involve enforcement costs and labor. Without even getting to the specific choices … expense is a question.”

Among the Transportation Committee’s other recommendations is bringing in a “free ride” type system to shuttle people to longer-term parking in the school lots, which are empty, for the most part, in the summer.

A free ride system called the Hopper, in fact, has been very successful in Montauk, according to East Hampton Town councilman David Lys, another Express Sessions panelist. He said the Hopper, which shuttled more than 21,000 people on a set loop in downtown and waterfront areas of Montauk last summer, was so successful that its route would be expanded this year. Combined with potential zoning code changes in which businesses’ individual parking space requirements may be changed to shared parking requirements, Mr. Lys said East Hampton Town offers examples for how Sag Harbor can make improvements to its parking logistics.

East Hampton Town Board member David Lys responds to a question. Michael Heller photo

“You have to include more looping, mass transportation to these small hamlets right now … like we did in Montauk,” he said. “You still get all the individuals who want to spend money downtown, but they park at home or off site.”

East Hampton Town’s Hopper service was supplemented with funding by New York State. Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr., another one of the Express Sessions panelists and a Sag Harbor resident, is also working on a plan to bring more commuter trains to the South Fork via the Long Island Rail Road, which is expected to come to fruition next February.

“Getting people out of their cars is an important part of this, but you have to get them from their train station to the last mile,” Mr. Thiele said. “…A car trip that isn’t necessary is a parking space that doesn’t get used. Public transportation is one part of that. I think the village needs a plan, a plan for how to deal with parking issues and traffic congestion. It is the end of March and I only had to circle twice to find a place to park here today.”

He offered a piece of advice to Sag Harbor Village officials: develop specific projects and ask the state’s regional economic development councils to fund them.

“I would think the economic development councils would be interested in a downtown like Sag Harbor where you identify what the needs are,” Mr. Thiele said. “Identify what your priorities are, and we’ll work hard on the state level to one way or another provide the necessary resources to help.”

Panelist Lisa Field, who is president of the Sag Harbor Chamber of Commerce and owner of the Sag Harbor Variety Store, said it is not an actual dearth of spaces but rather “the perceived lack of parking” that influences the arrival of people into the village, particularly the flow of locals during the summer. She said it translates into a loss of sales for businesses.

Sag Harbor Chamber of Commerce President Lisa Field. Michael Heller photo

“Some people come into town, circle Main Street once or twice, and if they’re not familiar with the area, they may just give up and go elsewhere,” Ms. Field said. “In season, one of the things I’ve heard way too many times from local people is that ‘I just don’t go into town during the summer,’ so for two months out of the year we don’t see a lot of our local customers. For Sag Harbor to remain a vibrant business district, we do need year-round support from our locals.”

To that end, she said, the Chamber has encouraged village officials to enforce the two-hour parking restrictions year-round, instead of just during the busy season, and has encouraged its members to comply with parking regulations and instruct employees and contractors to park in long-term lots instead of on Main Street.

“The main thing we want to stress is Main Street is not a parking lot. We need the turnover,” she said. ”…People just disregard the fact that it is two-hour parking.”

Her viewpoints appeared to be somewhat in opposition to those of another panelist, Ethan Kent, the senior vice president and an urban planner with the Project for Public Spaces in New York City. Mr. Kent has traveled to more than 800 cities in 55 countries in his work for the organization, which is also a partner of Main Street America, helping to revitalize historic commercial districts.

“It can’t just be the convenience of parking in-and-out,” Mr. Kent said. “That’s actually a race to the bottom.”

While Sag Harbor has numerous “potential destinations” in relatively close proximity, he said, “It’s still defined by parking … it doesn’t feel walkable.”

STORY: Calling Sag Harbor to Action on “Place Making”

“Where are the public anchors of the whole community?” Mr. Kent said. “Parking is a drug. You can never get enough. It’s a narcotic that needs to be regulated, but place is the antidote to parking. Leading with place, defining your community around places, if you can plan for cars and traffic and parking, you just get more parking.”

Ms. Field disputed what she perceived in Mr. Kent’s comments to be the idea that “the businesses are in it for themselves.”

“You’re describing a destination,” she said. “It sounds great, but a lot of what I’m hearing is bringing people here. It’s one of the few around that has functioning stores. The people around here need that quick in-and-out parking. You can’t gloss over that. If all these businesses disappear, Sag Harbor is going to be a different place.”

Mr. Kent’s response was to suggest paid parking, a thought which Mr. Dorph — having suggested it earlier — then seconded. Mr. Larocca then endorsed Ms. Field’s comments and stated his opposition to paid parking.

VIDEO: Missed Friday’s Express Sessions conversation? Watch it here

Mr. Larocca updated the audience on the status of the “gas ball” parking lot at the corner of Bridge Street and Long Island Avenue: “What we’ve come up with is up to a five-year plan where we will continue to lease it for a dollar a year. The only part not worked out yet is insurance.”

One idea that seemed to fall in between free and paid parking, that of valet parking services, was brought up by a handful of community members in attendance on Friday. The suggestion was raised that the village could partner with a valet company and businesses with private lots to use those lots in the evenings to free up spaces elsewhere.

“If you look at the periphery of business district, there are businesses that have their own lots,” said local business owner Luke Babcock. “It seems to me there are some short-term solutions — freeing up some spaces with valets.”

Tracy Mitchell, the executive director of Bay Street Theater, lobbied Mr. Larocca for the chance to try valet parking on Long Wharf.

“In July and August we have plenty of people who would pay for that convenience of driving up to Long Wharf and having someone take their car up to Havens Beach or wherever,” she said.

Mr. Larocca replied, “I don’t want to see meters on Main Street, but if a private enterprise wants to make valet legal, they are perfectly capable of coming to village hall and seeing if we would accept that.”

Sag Harbor Village Board member James Larocca responds to a question. Michael Heller photo

He said he did not think the village itself could operate a valet parking service. “A solution to every problem is not the village takes on a new, costly activity,” he said.

Multiple people also raised the idea of making walking safer in the village.

Chris Tice, who serves on the Sag Harbor School Board of Education, asked Mr. Larocca whether the village has any plans to improve existing sidewalks, add more of them or more strictly enforce snow removal regulations.

“I work at the end of town. I witness people falling and tripping on broken sidewalks, and there are way too many parts with no sidewalks,” she said. “I am terrified, as a school board member, to watch children in my district walking in the middle of the road.”

Mr. Larocca said sidewalk upkeep “is always part of the public works process and budget,” and said the village does have “an enforcement problem” when it comes to snow removal.

“We’re always on it, but never at a speed that we would like,” he said. “New sidewalks for the parts that have none — it’s not so clear that everyone supports such an idea. Many residents like it just the way it is. It’s not just one size fits all, but we hear those concerns.”

Earlier in the session, Mr. Dorph had compared walking in Sag Harbor to walking a distance of two or three New York City streets.

“The distance from Bay Street to Baron’s Cove is like First Avenue to Third Avenue,” he said. “The whole village is walkable if people would just walk it. … But there’s no sidewalk to Baron’s Cove.”

Jonas Hagen, a Sag Harbor resident and urban planner, later suggested, “Maybe some people prefer not to walk because it doesn’t feel safe to walk.”

Gigi Morris, another member of the Sag Harbor Transportation Committee, addressed a question to Mr. Larocca.

“It seems like there are a lot of suggestions way beyond just a can of paint and more spaces. Most radical of all, ‘Let’s plan our village for the people who live here,’” she said. “Is the board actually open to looking at all of these ideas and creating a whole plan for the village rather than a little more paint?”

Mr. Larocca’s simple answer was “yes.”

“My approach has been to look at practical, near-term solutions while we have these broader discussions — 25 spaces here, 30 there, while we’re trying to come up with a master scheme,” he said. “This is not in isolation of all other transportation issues.”

Panelist Ethan Kent stands to address a packed house at The American Hotel on Friday. Michael Heller photo