This story is the second in a multi-part series on Norristown's new parking regulations and procedures and how residents are coping with the change.
A quick drive up West Marshall Street these days shows a very different scene than one just a few short months ago. The busy commercial district, often celebrated by council members as an example of better economic times returning to Norristown, was once lined with cars on either side of the street. If you had business in the area or just wanted to grab some great food, take advantage of the myriad of shopping choices or many convenient services, you might spend more than a few minutes driving up and down the block looking for a parking spot. Nowadays, a drive up West Marshall reveals a lot more curbside real estate.
This new open space is seen as a direct result of the parking meters installed along West Marshall Street in early February, and the sea-change in traffic was one intended by Norristown Municipal Council when they approved the plan to implement metered parking in the West End business district.
But according to some business owners in the area, what would seem like a boon for potential consumers – ample parking convenient to businesses – is actually a Trojan Horse that is driving business away with high parking rates, unclear and overbearing regulations and aggressive enforcement.
Municipal Manager Dave Forrest recounted at a recent council meeting how business owners in the area initially approached the municipality in 2008 and asked for help with the parking issue.
"The key issue was the fact that there were too many cars parked for long, long periods on West Marshall Street, taking up spots that could be used by customers," said Forrest. "One of the things we did was eliminate the "Zone D" parking permits on the side streets, but at [a 2008] meeting, I specifically asked everybody in the room, I said, 'The next phase of this is parking meters. Does anyone have a problem with the introduction of parking meters?' No one did."
The intent of the plan, said Forrest, was to create more turnover in those parking areas. Forrest said the plan was clearly a success. He added that if anyone needed more long-term parking, there were 52 spaces available to the public at nearby Poley Park.
Councilman William Caldwell, a resident of the West End, agreed that the lack of availability of parking before the meters made patronizing West Marshall Street businesses difficult.
"That's my neighborhood," said Caldwell. "If I'm driving home and decide I want to stop for something on Marshall Street, I rarely do because I can't find parking. To me, it's worth a dollar to drop in and to go eat food if I want it there. There's a lot of nice places and you just can't find parking."
Recently, a group of West Marshall Street business owners met to discuss their issues with the new meters and come up with a way to address those issues with the municipality. While they welcome the meters, they said council went too far with exorbitant rates and over-reaching enforcement hours. They also say poor communication about the implementation of the new parking regulations has led to many costumers receiving tickets in spite of good-faith efforts to follow the rules.
"For us, it's about turning [over] parking – every two hours, we want to see parking turn," said Dave Sereny who owns several properties in the neighborhood and organized the lunch-time meeting. "But we don't want to chase our customers away. It's been a long, hard effort to even make the street into what it's turned into. Now it just seems like these meters could take us back to where we were."
Chief among the complaints of the business owners in attendance was the price being charged – $1.50 an hour. They point to neighboring communities like Ambler where parking is only 50 cents an hour and parking tickets range closer to $10.
"The economy is so bad right now," said Larry Hollander, owner of Larry's Thrift Shop a long-time anchor of the shopping district. "And now you're asking people to pay $1.50 for an hour, so they're not coming here to buy."
"If it were a quarter for a half hour maybe it would be a good thing," said Sereny.
The cost of parking isn't the only financial issue Sereny has with the new meters.
"If you took that money and reinvested it back into this area, it would be OK," he said. "But when you're taking the money that you're getting from the meters and the tickets and you're using it to bolster your bottom line of your general funds, I've got a problem with that. You're sucking money from this area and you're not giving anything back to us."
Another common complaint is what business owners say is overly-aggressive ticketing by parking enforcement officers.
"These guys are like sharks looking for tickets," said Sereny. "We just think that that's wrong."
"I'd like the council to come down here and watch that [parking enforcement officer]," said Hollander. "She goes running like a complete nut as fast as she sees a flag, BANG! It is crazy."
It's not just the rates or the distribution of wealth that business owners in the area would like to see changed. The parking enforcement hours are also not very business friendly according to some merchants.
"The rate is one thing, and the timing is another thing" said Ronald Lee, owner of Spillane's. "These parking meters go from eight o'clock in the morning to six o'clock in the afternoon. If you come here at eight o'clock in the morning, there's nobody around."
Lee and other business owners would like to see the enforcement hours changed to a more business-friendly 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. – prime business hours when parking turnover is most needed.
These West End business owners say they feel abandoned by council. When asked how many times in his 25 years of operating his business on West Marshall Street he's seen a council member on his street, he replied, "Never." The other owners in attendance gave similar answers.
Pierre Long, owner of Hair Zone, had similar issues with council's lack of communication. Long attended a recent council meeting to lodge a complaint about the lack of notice regarding enforcement of the meters. Long said meters were installed and working, and some of his customers were using them but still receiving tickets because official use of the meters hadn't begun and officers were still enforcing the prior two-hour parking regulations.
"There was never a memo, any notification that went out to the businesses to let us know when the meters were actually going to be enforced," Long told council. "People were pulling up, putting money in, and still getting two-hour parking tickets."
Long also said he and fellow business owners were never notified about the availability of parking in Poley Park – something he says his costumers would gladly take advantage of. Given the nature of his business, a popular barber shop, Long says his customers can sometimes spend hours in his establishment. He related that he has paid several of his customers' parking tickets as a courtesy for what he felt was unfair ticketing by parking enforcement.
"Last week I paid three tickets," said Long. "That's ridiculous. One mistake and now you're getting a $50 haircut."
Norristown Police Chief Russell Bono told Long he would investigate the claims of mistaken ticketing and reported to Norristown Patch that after pulling tickets for West Marshall Street between Feb. 1 through Feb. 21, they found no tickets issued for violations of the old two-hour parking regulations.
Chief Bono also pointed out that his department conducted a long educational program before the kiosks were even operational and continued their efforts once the kiosks and meters were in place.
"Once they were operational, we [spent] over a month handing out information and having parking enforcement standing near kiosks explaining to people how they operate. We didn't just put them in one day and start enforcing them [the next.]"
While there's still some disagreement between sides on the effort put into educating the public, there's also the issue of a perceived disconnect between the municipality's business-friendly message and its implementation at street level.
"When I spoke to the councilman, their thing was they're looking for business to come from outside of the borough," said Long. "To come to Norristown and have a good experience. Well here it is. I got nine operational chairs and I've got guys from all over – from Chester County, Delaware County, Bucks County, New Jersey, Philadelphia, Coatesville, Delaware – they come to Norristown for a haircut. They pass hundreds of barber shops on their way here. I'm bringing them in, but now you're giving them a bad experience."
While rates, hours and communication were all of paramount concern to these West End business owners, Long's statement illustrated a larger issue they feel is at play.
"Its even bigger than parking," said Sereny. "Merchants and store owners don't feel as though the municipality has their best interest at heart. They're not really user friendly from a business standpoint and they're losing out to Phoenixville and Conshohocken. People don't want to come to Norristown to open a business. They want to go where they feel welcome."
While council members and municipal officials have repeatedly stated they would work with business owners to tweak the new regulations, a cloud remains over the heads of the West End merchants who feel the municipality isn't doing enough.
Councilman Bill Caldwell chalks those frustrations up to growing pains with the new regulations.
"I'm probably the only one in the room who's had the opportunity to operate a business with the new parking meters now, going on month three," Caldwell (who runs the Wells Fargo on East Main Street) said to West End business owners at the last council meeting. "What we found in talking with the restauranteurs in the two blocks affected, as well as myself, is that we really have not seen a drop in business. I think you're going to go through probably two months of sheer aggravation... It will get better."
NEXT UP: Parking Enforcement – Are the horror stories true or just tall tales told by residents who long for more lawless days?