How Portland Is Trying To Solve Its Parking Predicament

Oct 9, 2019

If traffic is the major complaint for drivers in and around Maine’s largest city, then parking is a close second. 

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 30,000 people enter Portland every day. But there are only about 7,000 spaces in the city’s public and private parking garages, leaving many to scramble for the least expensive options they can find, either in surface lots, garages tucked under buildings or on the street. City officials are searching for answers to the growing demand for parking.

For Stacy Doubleday, who works in downtown Portland, the summer commute has been challenging, particularly with the volume of tourists competing for parking spots.

"We either have to get the free parking or the $5 lot, and that's been really difficult this summer, so we've had to Uber in, which could be $20 a day,” Doubleday says. “So it's been, it's been quite challenging this year."

And shop owners in the Old Port say the parking problem is also affecting business.

"We lose our good customers because there's no place to park, and they can't deal with it,” says Annie Sheehan, who runs a blown glass and pottery shop on Commercial Street.

City officials are searching for answers to the growing demand for parking.
Credit Willis Ryder Arnold / Maine Public

"People who are our good customers will come in and say, 'I have three minutes, I'm in an illegal parking zone, I need this.’ And they run out. They do not want to come down here in the summer," she says.

Nell Donaldson is the director of special projects in Portland's Planning and Urban Development Department.

"We hear a lot about too much parking; we hear a lot about too little parking,” Donaldson says. “We hear voices all over the map on this issue, and we spend a lot of time dealing with this issue."

And the issue isn’t really new. In fact, Portland has, for nearly a decade, given developers a choice: either provide enough parking to meet the anticipated-needs of the project, or submit a fee to the "Sustainable Transportation Fund,” which the city uses to pay for alternative solutions, including more transit.

"To the extent that we can give people transportation choice and allow them to choose other modes, allow them to choose to carpool, allow them even to remote park, that's a benefit to the city, to downtown," Donaldson says.

But Donaldson says because many developers have found a way to lease existing spaces, rather than create their own or pay a fee, the Sustainable Transportation Fund hasn’t generated as much revenue as the city had hoped. Another approach to solving the parking problem, says Donaldson, has been through the zoning process.

"We are working again, through the land-use code on land use policy that promotes mixed use too, people aren't necessary driving between where they live and where they work, or where they live and go to school," Donaldson says.

The city is also now requiring large developments to have a so-called Transportation Demand Management Plan. The payment-processing technology firm WEX, for example, will have some of its 400 employees at a new waterfront office building park at remote locations. The company is also offering financial incentives for employees to use alternatives to driving their own cars.

Former Portland Planning Chief Jeff Levine says the city is wise to find solutions to its parking pressures that go beyond building more garages.

"It has an economic impact, making sure there is a good supply,” Levine says. “On the flip side, I think there's an economic impact to having too much supply. Some of the cities with the most parking downtown are some of the least successful cities because they've built parking at the expense of other uses."

For now, though, the parking shortage for shop managers like Annie Sheehan is an immediate problem, so the city says it is working with a private company to operate a shuttle service along Commercial Street that will use self-driving vehicles, beginning as early as next spring.

And the Portland Press Herald reports Wednesday that a development company is proposing a six-story garage downtown that will add new parking spots and will also include space for stores, apartments and offices.