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Whatever happened to the parking garage?

Advocates feel stymied by a lack of support, action by the City Council.

Despite passing through numerous green lights, a proposed Winslow parking garage project has stalled at the intersection of downtown transportation planning concerns.

“I am really surprised,” said Winslow Tomorrow project director Sandy Fischer, of the City Council’s recent hesitance to give the project its approval. “I don’t know anymore if this is going forward. I don’t know what their decision is.

“But part of acting on things is that sometimes if you don’t act, you’ve made your decision with indecision.”

The Winslow Tomorrow executive summary – which collected the findings of the recent year-long planning process for the downtown core – recommended that city and private partners build a partially underground garage on the current site of a city-owned parking lot south of the farmer’s market, or at the Winslow post office location, by 2010.

The estimated $12 million to $15 million project would draw vehicles off Winslow’s streets as the downtown increases its role as a hub for commerce and residential living, backers say.

“Without adequate parking downtown, we’ll lose our anchor tenants and growth is going to sprawl out,” Fischer said Friday. “That’s unsustainable (and) troublesome to me.”

But some councilors believe a garage may not solve Winslow’s parking challenges.

“I’m not sold on the parking garage at a (downtown) location as the solution,” said Councilman Nezam Tooloee at a recent council meeting to discuss elements of Winslow Tomorrow in the city’s 2007 budget.

Tooloee favors new parking areas outside of the Winslow core over the downtown garage proposal.

Councilman Bob Scales said Winslow Tomorrow has other priorities – such as non-motorized transportation improvements – that should come before the parking garage.

The project has also not yet undergone the proper vetting to determine its merits, Councilwoman Debbie Vancil said.

“Like the shuttle, if it doesn’t have the background work behind it, it’s bound to fail,” she said, citing a recent plan for bus service for downtown employees, which the council rejected in its proposed form.

“Everything’s going to be carefully scrutinized,” she said. “Circulation and parking need to be addressed before we decide what the (parking garage) design is going to look like.”

But other councilors say the project has already undergone enough community discussion and council deliberation.

“Good god, what kind of message are we sending to Winslow Tomorrow?” asked Councilman Bill Knobloch. “We’re on the brink of over-studying this. It’s time to take action.”

Knobloch urged his colleagues to “invoke a little trust in the city administration” and avoid sidelining the project.

“You might smirk when I use the word ‘“trust,’” he told a fellow councilor. “But the public might want to know what it’s getting from Winslow Tomorrow. Meanwhile, we talk it to death.”

City administrators also expressed frustration with council calls for more deliberation.

“I’m thoroughly confused,” said city Finance Director Elray Konkel at the meeting. “I don’t know where this is going. This parking structure has been in the capital facilities plan for the last two years.”

It’s also received support in numerous city deliberations, according to City Administrator Mary Jo Briggs.

The parking garage has been given the nod by the citizen volunteers involved in the Winslow Tomorrow planning process and transportation consultant Jim Charlier, as well as council-approved work plans, budget documents and grant applications.

“How can we now say it’s not part of the plan?” she asked the council. “I get confounded.”

Fischer, working under the assumption that the council had approved the garage proposal, had assured downtown property owners that the project was moving forward.

“People are making a lot of investments and improvements (based on) this project,” she said. “We need to go public very quickly if the council doesn’t have confidence in this.”

Fischer mentioned that the property owners of Town & Country Market and the Virginia Mason Winslow clinic are depending on the garage as they plan for the future.

While the owners could not be reached for comment, T&C owner Larry Nakata said in a statement that expanded parking is key for his businesses’ survival in downtown Winslow.

“On our island, grocery shopping is still very much a vehicular-dependent activity,” Nakata wrote. “Available and convenient parking is necessary to operate successfully. As our island’s population has grown, this has become more difficult. People recognize that our site provides parking for many who can’t find parking elsewhere.”

A March survey of 33 downtown businesses found 15 would expand if space were available and not hampered by parking requirements, according to Fischer.

Reducing a store or restaurant’s on-site parking area requirements while sending vehicles to the multilevel garage could free more space for growth, she said.

“There seems to be a real disconnect with the City Council,” said Bainbridge Island Chamber of Commerce director Kevin Dwyer. “Everybody would bike and walk to downtown in a perfect world. But that’s not the reality of all these stores. They need parking. It’s a necessity.”

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Tomorrow talk

The council will discuss Winslow Tomorrow budget priorities at a 4 p.m. workshop on Wednesday and at the regularly scheduled council meeting at 7 p.m.

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