PAWTUCKET — On Friday just after 10 a.m., an employee of Artee Home said she was coming down the stairwell from the municipal parking garage when she came upon a disturbing sight. A man who appeared to be passed out was sprawled at the bottom of the first-floor landing, blocking her passage. The man had also apparently defecated and urinated in the spot. The woman, who asked that her name not be used, said she tried speaking to the man and was relieved to see that he was at least breathing. She called police and rescue personnel responded. The stairwell was cordoned off and later cleaned.
Yet, for those who work and patronize the businesses downtown, the troubling incident was one that is all too familiar in and around the city's lone municipal parking garage. It is also just one of several frustrations about parking in the downtown in general that have some Main Street business owners concerned.
Customers and employees of the downtown businesses have limited on-street parking options, so one of the key places is the city's three-story municipal garage at Main Street and Park Place. Yet, that 1970s-era garage is dimly lit, its walls are filled with graffiti, and there is often trash and a stench of urine in the stairwells.
City officials from the Doyle Administration had stated publicly over a year and a half ago that the city was aware of the problems and that plans were in the works to brighten the paint, and install new lighting and security cameras. Improvements to the parking garage have also been outlined among other proposed parking and traffic changes changes in a consultant's study that has been embraced by city officials. However, despite some failed efforts to beautify the garage with vines and windowboxes, the parking garage remains dark and uninviting.
Frustrated by the situation, Michael Lozano, co-owner of the multi-tenant building known as The Grant, has renewed a call for action. In July, he contacted Douglas Hadden, director of constituent services and communications for Mayor Donald Grebien. He notified Hadden that “people are currently using the garage stairwell as a toilet, and it is horribly embarrassing to the city.” He added that this was “just the latest in a long string of issues with the garage” and urged them to take action immediately. He also called for a written action plan with short and long-term goals for the garage property.
Lozano said that Hadden responded to his initial call with some suggestions and also told him to contact the Pawtucket Police Department about the issues. On Aug 6, he again e-mailed Hadden, along with City Councilors John Barry and James Chadwick, the Pawtucket Police, and other city officials, to report that “there is illegal activity going on at at all times of the day and night in the garage. If it is not loitering, it is illegal dumping, littering, public urination or whatever.”
Lozano claimed that a nearby proprietor had been illegally dumping trash and should be ticketed. He also wrote, “The garage is incredibly filthy, and it is getting worse.” He also wrote, “visitors, workers and residents should not have to constantly experience this, and frankly, it's embarrassing and unsafe. Someone, please, report to me some real action steps that will be taken.”
Lozano told The Times he remains frustrated because he didn't get any firm commitments from the city administration about any concrete improvements. He said he had spoken with Police Major Bruce Moreau, who said he would increase the patrols of the garage, but wants to see more done to make people feel safer about using the facility. He maintains that he has lost several tenants over the parking garage situation and the lack of downtown parking in general.
“There is a perception that the garage is unsafe,” said Lozano. “And it's my opinion that it wouldn't take a lot to make it better. Keep it clean, improve the lighting, put cameras in. It's been talked about for years now and we've seen no real movement on it.”
Another local businessman, Christian Lanoie, the co-owner of Plouffe's Cup 'n Saucer Restaurant, concurred that more should be done by the city to improve the garage. He noted that the garage is currently underutilized, with the second and third levels often empty, and thinks the reason is that the space is so dark and uninviting.
Lanoie said that even though the garage is located across the street from the restaurant, most of his customers do not use it, opting instead to park in a nearby outdoor lot or on the street. He thinks more of his customers would use the garage, as well as the those visiting the surrounding businesses, if it didn't look so intimidating. “I can understand people feeling like their car is not safe there,” said Lanoie. “The biggest factor is the lighting. The city is already paying to light it so it shouldn't be that exorbitant to put in brighter lights,” he noted.
Lanoie noted that Plouffe's Cup 'n Saucer will have been open two years in November, and that since day one, city officials have recognized the problems with the garage and talked about making improvements. He recalled a meeting awhile back with some of the other downtown merchants who also pledged to get involved with the garage. “Here we are, two years later and no improvements,” said Lanoie.
Other suggestions Lanoie had were to simply clean up the garage and to install security cameras to make people feel safer about their cars and to help police catch those who might be using the garage for unsavory or illegal activity. He added that, instead of trying to paint the walls a neutral color, perhaps graffiti artists or local youths could be invited to decorate the interior walls to make the space “brighter and more fun.” “Clearly, the garage is underutilized,” said Lanoie. The current conditions in the garage, he said don't reflect “the people we're trying to attract with this revitalization of Main Street.”
City Planning Director Michael Davolio told the Times on Friday that there are specific plans underway to improve the garage's lighting. “We've got funding for this and we have issued an RFP (Request for Proposals),” said Davolio. He said the new lighting will be installed as soon as the bid is awarded.
Davolio also said that Mayor Donald Grebien “is actively involved” in finding a way to get security cameras at the garage. “Obviously, there is a lot more that needs to be done,” he said, but added that he and the administration are aware of the problems and consider a clean-up of the garage to be a priority. “We're working towards solutions for the long-term, because we see it (the garage) as an asset,” Davolio said.
Police Major Bruce Moreau said that after Lozano's complaint, he and Police Chief Paul King walked through the garage on a recent day and found it to be fairly clean and mostly free of litter. He said there were some problems with damage causing leaking on a corner of the top floor, but said that overall, they didn't think it looked “that bad.”
Moreau did, however, acknowledge there are problems with loitering and the fact that some homeless people take refuge or sometimes relieve themselves in the garage's stairwells or isolated corners. He said that police have increased their patrols of the garage area to every other hour. However, he said the issue of loitering is one that every urban area faces and there is no simple solution.
Moreau pointed to the garage's proximity to a homeless shelter at a nearby church, a methadone clinic, an addiction recovery center and a downtown bus stop that brings in people from other communities. “We have a chronic homeless population,” said Moreau. He added that to catch someone urinating, or engaging in some other kind of illegal activity in the garage, a police officer has to be there when it happens.
Moreau added that better lighting and cameras would help with public safety, if the funding can be found. He also said he would like to see an active downtown merchants association formed that would work regularly with the Police Department on these issues.
At Wednesday's City Council meeting, Councilor John Barry called attention to Lozano's letter and requested that the council send a letter to the Grebien Administration calling for the garage improvements to be made a priority. Barry said that he, too, realizes that this has been a long-standing problems and he is frustrated by the lack of prgress.
“I want to see a plan from the administration and the Planning Department to see what they are going to do to make this a safe, clean facility,” said Barry. “There should be cameras, mirrors, and regular patrols of that garage. It's a valuable piece of city property.”
Barry noted that in the current economy, many of the downtown businesses are struggling anyway. He said the city should therefore do what it can to make a more customer-friendly parking facility. “We have people who have invested in the downtown, and all those businesses should have safe parking and be able to have their customers feel safe,” he added.
In speaking with some of the other Main Street business owners, complaints about parking extend beyond the parking garage to other urban headaches.
An employee at Artee Home (who didn't want her name used) said she has found it difficult to find a place to park downtown for her eight-hour workday. She said that employees used to be able to park on a road that runs behind Artee, but were recently told that this space is no longer available due to the construction that has begun on the new Blackstone Valley Community Health Care facility located nearby.
The woman said she tries to find on-street parking, which has a two-hour limit, or the parking garage, which has signs posted for a two-hour limit on the first level, “parking by permit only” on the second level, and a four-hour limit on the third level. She said she has had to leave her post several times a day to move her car so she can avoid getting a ticket.
Helmut, who has operated the Melissa Coiffures hair salon on Main Street since 1984, said his customers have been finding parking more difficult in the past year as the spaces on the first floor of the parking garage have been filling up with the arrival of some new businesses and social service agencies.
Helmut noted that most of his clientele consists of elderly women, and many feel unsafe using the upper floors of the parking garage. He also complained that many motorists leave cars parked in the on-street spaces for far longer than the posted two-hour limit, which makes it difficult for him to receive truck deliveries. “I've been here in Pawtucket for a long time, but I'm very frustrated. I'm ready to move out,” he said.
Jack Noe, who owns the Ronzio Pizza, said that he and his other employees have experienced some parking problems themselves, and he has also heard complaints from some customers about the conditions in the parking garage.
Noe said, however, that while he wishes there was more downtown parking, he knew what he was getting into when he moved into the Main Street location. He also said that there are less problems with customers finding on-street parking at night, when the downtown essentially clears out.