READING ¬– All it took to stop a year’s worth of work involving numerous town officials and an outside consulting firm was Jean Thomson, a proud 86-year-old woman and 50-year resident of Linden Street.
In a Select Board meeting that started Tuesday and ended just 17 minutes short of Wednesday, the story of Thomson as well as other Linden Street residents during a public hearing on parking dominated a long night. As a result, the Parking Traffic Transportation Task Force (PTTTF) members who were hoping for a vote of support for revising Reading’s downtown parking, instead got just one piece of what they were asking for, as well as a slap on the wrist for another communications shortfall.
The Select Board voted to abolish the 58 leased parking spaces (41 along High Street) and return them to the public supply. But when it came to the PTTTF’s other requests, including expanded employee parking and paid kiosks at Brande Court and behind CVS, the answer was no, at least for now. The board also added an Oct. 13 meeting during which a range of parking issues will be discussed.
And it all started with Thomson, who had some help from a neighbor.
“Most significantly, the proposal, which nobody understood until this weekend, was that the entire left side of the street would be made no parking,” said Linden Street resident David Talbot. “It’s been parking on both sides for 50 years. I know that because I will now speak for one of my neighbors, Jean Thomson, who lives at 48 Linden Street, on the left side.
“I went on Sunday when I first heard about this from my neighbor and her side is going to be made no parking. Jean is 86 years old. She lives alone. She never heard anything about this. There really wasn’t outreach … the people most effected are the people on the left side of Linden Street. This is nine houses with about 15 residential units that have been parking there. I asked Jean what she thought. She said she was against it. She never heard anything about it. Again, she’s lived there for 50 years. She’s 86 years old. I really think we need to take a second look at the Linden Street piece and really recognize how incredibly disruptive this is to the street.”
Talbot focused as much on the town’s communication as he did on his street.
“I’m someone who is fairly involved in the town. This was late news to me and to everybody else on my street about the no parking on the opposite side. I think we can do better about notifying people when major changes like this are proposed for in front of their house.”
Others from Linden Street followed including Brooke Sakraida.
“We had no knowledge of any of these changes to our street in particular quite honestly until yesterday,” said Sakraida. “If I’m really honest, as you all know we’re in the middle of a pandemic, and as a very young family, I am inundated with information around schools and zoom and school openings and virtual learning. I feel like anything about these parking changes, if it did come our way, have been very difficult to find, pushed to the bottom of the pile, kind of buried beneath these real Covid concerns. So, until yesterday I really had none of this information to really think through.”
Sanborn Street’s Rob Skinner talked about the “lack of notice.” Linden Street’s Karen Rose-Gillis said she heard about the potential parking changes accidently while looking for other information on the town website. “None of my neighbors knew about it,” she said.
The truth is the town tried, and Julie Mercier, Reading’s Community Development Director, explained. The latest Reading water bill contained information about the parking discussion and the town sent two text messages and emails to downtown area residents alerting them about potential changes to parking regulations. In addition, there were 10 Zoom information sessions, the last of which was Wednesday night. Still, it wasn’t enough.
“We missed the mark on that,” said Mercier. “We put a physical paper mailing in something that every resident who pays a water bill would get and it would be something that they wouldn’t just rip up like junk mail because they need to open their water bill ... We wanted to make it as visible as we could. For a more targeted outreach we looked to code red. So, we wanted to take a multi-pronged approach to how we reached out. And I also followed up with emails.”
Following the public statements, the board, still sensitive to communications issues arising from the Venetian Moon tent, jumped on the communication issues. Vanessa Alvarado quickly said she didn’t feel comfortable voting on anything parking related Tuesday and others on the board joined her. Chair Mark Dockser didn’t want to push the discussion down the road but understood his fellow board member’s concerns.
“All of us here have always struggled with what’s the best way to reach out to the community and get input. It continues to be a struggle,” said Dockser. “I think there was a very strong attempt at outreach.”
All of the communications discussion took away from what could eventually be an excellent reworking of Reading’s parking situation. The PTTTF plan would push business employees out of downtown lots to what officials call the outer core. Sidewalks and lighting would be improved to ensure employees safety. In addition, solar-powered paid kiosks behind the CVS lot and at Brande Court would create more turnover in the lots. Each kiosk would cost between $10-15,000 and that money would be made up within a year. It’s a plan supported by the Reading Police.
The PTTTF may still get their wish of a new parking plan but not until after the Oct. 13 meeting. That night board members want more financial info on the kiosks, want to know how electric charging stations fit into the plan, want to know how parking enforcement would work, and want to know how kiosk user’s data would be safeguarded. And they also want to make sure Jean Thomson and all her neighbors are contacted.
“We’ve fallen short on this with other issues and I want to make sure we get this right,” said Alvarado.