Chatham's summer parking shortage is a problem that may never be solved. But that doesn't mean the search for relief from what is the most common complaint of the season should be abandoned.
Two weeks ago the board of selectmen, on a split vote, rejected consideration of acquisition of the Eldredge Garage property, chiefly to expand downtown parking. The board had previously rejected even considering the property, but agreed to revisit their decision at the request of downtown merchants, many of whom observe, on a daily basis, the frustration customers – and potential customers – over not being able to find a parking spot downtown. But the board, voting 3-2 in a decision Chairman Jeffrey Dykens indicated was final, said the drawbacks of town purchase of the two parcels outweighed the potential benefits.
The Eldredge Garage land, which comprises about 1.5 acres on two parcels, one hosting two historic buildings, the other a vacant lot, represent probably the largest single chunk of property that is likely to become available within Chatham's downtown business district in the foreseeable future. By failing to act quickly enough, the board missed out on an even better place to expand parking when the former Chatham Bowling Alley, located right next to a town parking lot on Chatham Bars Avenue, was purchased last fall by Chatham Bars Inn. Unless something changes among current board members, it appears as if the town will miss this opportunity as well.
The chief concern of board members appeared to be the reported $2.5 million asking price and the possibility that the long-time use of the property as a gas station and auto repair facility left it an environmental liability. But unless there's something they're not telling us, there seems little beyond anecdotal evidence to support this. We don't doubt that it could be the case – but short of commissioning at least a preliminary study, it will remain an unknown. Taking that step, perhaps tapping funds slated for the chamber of commerce, seems to us a reasonable step before burning all bridges.
There are also creative possibilities with this property that could mitigate the price of the parcels, which have a combined assessed value of just under $2 million. One approach could be a public-private partnership, whereby the town purchased both lots and leases 365 Main St. to a developer who will retain the historic integrity of the building – perhaps in exchange for zoning and/or tax breaks – while the adjacent vacant lot is used for public parking. Or officials could work with the private sector, perhaps through the chamber of commerce, to develop a plan for both parcels which could then be purchased by a private party who would lease the vacant land to the town for a nominal annual fee. The town doesn't have to tackle this issue alone, especially since it is of paramount importance to the business community, whom we expect would be more than happy to lend their collective brainpower to the problem.
Even if there are environmental issues, that should not stand in the way of a thorough investigation of the property's potential. We remind officials that the town passed on purchasing the former Chatham Mobil property at the downtown rotary a number of years ago due to concerns over gasoline contamination; that didn't seem to stand in the way of Cumberland Farms redeveloping the parcel. We urge the board of selectmen to take another, serious look at the Eldredge Garage property, spend a little money to investigate the environmental issues, and be open to a creative approach to helping mitigate our summer parking problems.