Seneca Street Parking Garage

A perennial problem for Ithacans has been finding a parking spot downtown. Driving past spaces that are just a few inches shy of being a secure place to leave your car can be downright frustrating. The complaint that there’s nowhere to park in downtown Ithaca has led residents to seek answers from the city.

With plenty of spaces in the Seneca and Green Street garages leased out and short-term limits on spaces surrounding The Commons, parking is an oft-cited point of contention for residents who live beyond a walkable distance from downtown. But Planning Director JoAnn Cornish feels this complaint may be more of an exaggeration than reality.

“One of the things we hear all the time is there’s no parking downtown, but, in fact, there are lots and lots of spaces on the street that are available,” Cornish said. “We want to make sure that people understand where there is parking, the garages are not the only place you can park downtown.”

As downtown continues to grow, parking seem to be decreasing, although the exact number of places to park is something of a mystery. A new comprehensive parking study from the City of Ithaca will not only take inventory of where to park downtown, but it will also analyze how Ithaca will grow over the next 10 years and assess how much new parking will be needed during that time. The study will also try to gauge any new projects that would increase the demand further.

After meeting with many downtown business owners, Cornish found this may be more of a community problem than a space problem. The city does plan to undertake a rigorous community involvement process with the new study, using stakeholder and focus groups to gather more information about parking. Other points being analyzed in the study are occupancy rates, parking demands, revenues for on and off-street parking, what the City is paying to subsidize parking downtown and parking alternatives.

One alternative that has worked for drivers in downtown Ithaca, including this reporter, is parking in residential neighborhoods. While there are a few residents who have taken umbrage with this, Cornish said this is a problem with simple solutions such as residents applying for a Residential Parking Permit Program. She also said the city can restrict the time that a car can be parked in one location to discourage long-term parking.

Parking Director Pete Messmer has seen a great increase in the issues regarding parking in Downtown Ithaca. He noted that as the city’s growth continues in both downtown and Collegetown, the existing parking structure is reaching its capacity. Messmer said current development projects would generate the need for an additional 300 to 500 parking spaces in Downtown Ithaca.

With the Green Street Garage undergoing a much-needed rehabilitation project in the coming months, this leaves downtown with just the Cayuga and Seneca Street garages that will be fully operational. In the coming years, though, the Seneca Street Garage will be undergoing a similar rehabilitation. Though a timeline has not been established for when the work will begin, according to Cornish, the city will send out requests for expressions of interest within the next six months for the Seneca Street redevelopment.

One thing the city wishes to avoid is any overlap in the closing of the Seneca and Green Street garages. Since the Seneca Street Garage still has some life left, this could be easily avoided. According to Cornish, that will be a prominent factor in how the Seneca Street Garage project is phased.

“We’re looking very carefully at how to phase this,” Cornish said. “We have put a substantial amount of money into the Seneca Street Garage, so there is life left in it. Not a 20-year life span, but it’s a 5- to 10-year lifespan. We feel that while we do need a plan for replacement of that garage, [with] the Seneca Street Garage, we have a little bit of time. And what we’d really like to do is get through the Green Street Garage and associated residential project and then move on to [the] Seneca Street Garage.”

Despite a lack of details as to what will be prioritized at the Seneca Street Garage, the idea of putting a new downtown bus depot on the ground floor has been considered. There are also talks of adding in some retail spaces on the first floor as well. Overall, Cornish hopes this will help to make the first floor more active.

Other considered ideas include adding more parking to both garages but Cornish is set on finding other means of parking that doesn’t require residents to constantly park in the garages. Recently, the city received a grant for a Transportation Demand Management Program in the downtown area, which has given rise to a plethora of ideas on how to expand the number of places to park around Ithaca.

Some of the concepts being explored to keep many residents’ cars out of the downtown garages are park and ride lots and implementing a new scooter share program that would accompany the already existing bike share program. One idea behind these is potentially putting scooters at park and ride lots to allow people a different way to get to Ithaca’s downtown core.

Locations are being scouted for where some of these park and ride lots could be. For now, Cornish said the city is looking near the big box stores, or somewhere people could either walk, bike, or use a scooter to get downtown. Another proposed idea was to implement a shuttle bus that would circulate from the lots to downtown.

The newly emptied spaces in the garages would then be free for either shoppers or visitors. As downtown Ithaca continues to develop, the issue of parking will continue to grow. Cornish knows this is something of a conundrum, but is ready to spend a great deal of time to solve it.

“It’s sort of a double-edged sword in the city because we're so lucky to have all this development, whereas other upstate cities are not growing,” Cornish said. “But, at the same time, it’s painful when you grow this fast and you have aging infrastructure. We’re just trying to balance that, predict the needs and also to allow for more development if that’s the case in downtown, but we have to make sure we can accommodate it.”

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