Last week at the local meeting of the Cape Ann Chamber of Commerce, a fundamental shift signaled a solution to one of Manchester’s most dogged parking challenges: creating a path from the public parking lot behind Town Hall to the heart of Manchester’s downtown shopping district.
It seems easy enough, but the idea of connecting that lot with Beach Street has been a decades-long unfulfilled wish by retailers and restaurants to relieve the pressures of limited on-street parking. This issue was exasperated when the town upgraded key crosswalks at School and Union Streets in 2019. Then, again, more dramatically, retailers say they sacrificed disproportionately last year when on-street parking spots in front of restaurants were redeployed as outdoor dining areas surrounded by concrete “jersey barriers” to support the disruption in indoor dining from COVID-19.
The large Town Hall public parking lot provides adequate parking, but those wishing to go to most of Manchester’s shops and eateries walk a circular route up Church Street to Central Street and back down Beach Street. A walking path from the parking lot to Beach Street—as the crow flies—is short, easy, and direct. But decades of stubbornness from property owners thwarted any real solution.
Then, in December 2020, a small breakthrough. The quarterly Manchester Division meeting of the Cape Ann Chamber of Commerce is a quarterly open meeting designed to bring businesses together with town officials from the BOS, town administration, and public safety, in an easy environment. When the perennial issue of parking came up, Board of Selectmen Chair Eli Boling shared that the First Parish Congregational Church had agreed to lease the town a strip of land for a path. Progress, he said. But not enough to close the gap to Beach Street. James Brown, who manages the Cape Ann Savings Bank building that abuts the Church property, told Boling there was an existing path along the backside of that building, with safety cameras already installed. That could be a connector, he said, as long as the town could ensure safety for pedestrians.
By last week, all players returned to the next Chamber meeting and confirmed the path could be “a go,” easily solving a commonsense problem with common sense.
“This is great news for downtown businesses,” said Manchester Town Administrator Greg Federspiel. He reported the news to the Board of Selectmen on Monday night and said the next step would be to formalize agreements with the property owners and begin the light construction required to complete the path by June.
Town Planner Sue Brown said funding for the project will likely come from federal stimulus funding secured by the town. Separately, she said, Manchester this month received a Massachusetts grant under the Local Rapid Recovery Plan specifically designed to support local businesses coming out of COVID. Brown said these programs will likely come online as the new public walkway opens.
Business owners are thrilled.
To say this is has been a stubborn problem is an understatement. Over the years, the town has attempted to cajole and charm property owners into allowing public access across their land via a walkway, to no avail. Sixteen years ago, at Manchester’s Annual Town Meeting, one resident even suggested the town “take” the private property it needed by eminent domain. But now, finally, years later, after a series of simple conversations, a productive end that finally brings the idea of “accessible” to the concept of accessible parking. Just in time for the Summer season.