Rilling: I’ll seek SoNo input for parking, other issues

NORWALK, Conn. – Should Harry Rilling become Norwalk’s next mayor, a task force of South Norwalk’s stakeholders will be formed to find 21st century solutions to SoNo’s problems, the candidate said Friday.

Rilling, a Democrat trying to unseat Republican Mayor Richard Moccia, held a press conference next to a parking kiosk at a Maritime Aquarium parking lot to announce his plan to create a partnership with SoNo business owners, residents and workers with an “open and consistent line of communication” with the mayor’s office. This stemmed from two recent meetings with the stakeholders, he said.

Norwalk Rilling Sono platform 110113 062
Norwalk Democratic mayoral candidate Harry Rilling chats with former Mayor Bill Collins Friday in South Norwalk.

“We’ve agreed to start a partnership with the SoNo business owners and the residents,” he said. “We thought it was a good idea to form a task force of the stakeholders. People who live here, people who work here, people who own businesses here, so that we can determine what things need to happen. It goes back to my premise of not telling people what they need but asking them what they need and then helping them.”

He said he had been told that marketing local events is too challenging.

“It’s very, very difficult to do it with the process that’s in place at City Hall,” he said. “So we want to streamline the permitting process for events so that they can end up getting things done more quickly without jumping through a million hoops.”

The SoNo people had told him they need more street lighting, that the streets and sidewalks are dirty and broken, that way-finding could direct tourists around the area better and that the parking is inadequate and confusing.

The computer systems in the kiosks are “ very complicated,” he said.

“We’ve got to do something about parking to make it more user consumer friendly,” he said.

A man who happened to be sitting on a nearby bench said he agreed, people have issues with the parking.

Norwalker John Long said he is disabled and spends about eight hours a day in SoNo.

“I see a lot of people who are confused about how to pay for the parking, what buttons to push, where to put the little tickets they give you,” he said, motioning towards the kiosk. “You’ll have five or six people that really don’t know what’s going on and one guy in the back of the line that does. He’s getting really anxious to get to the front because he knows what’s going on. … People really get frustrated, they really do. I’m surprised there’s no fights.”

Rilling stood across the street from 20 North Water St., a development under construction, which includes a new parking garage.

Jack Chiaramonte, a Republican Board of Education member who owns SoNo Silver on North Main St., said parking has been an issue in the area for years. It has improved but it still isn’t right, he said.

The parking in the Webster lot became and issue under Democratic Mayor Alex Knopp, he said. There was one gate, with a booth that people had to stop at to pay for parking. It could take 45 minutes for people to get out after a movie, he said. That has been fixed under Moccia, he said.

“It’s improved,” Chiaramonte said. “Why didn’t (Rilling) say anything earlier when he was police chief? He was right up the block for so many years.”

Moccia did not return a request for comment.


26 responses to “Rilling: I’ll seek SoNo input for parking, other issues”

  1. Jlightfield

    Why are we talking about parking issues that are from the past when the real issues have been identified in 3 studies? ( one a parking specific study and the other two in retail feasibility in SoNo)
    The conclusion is clear, the parking rates are too high, the enforcement excessive and fines prohibitive. The Parking Authority has a misguided mission to sustain itself instead of reflective of market conditions. A $5.2 million (or so) budget with $3 million alllocated to a private contractor tells the story clearly. Stamford operates its parking lots on a 2.5 million budget.
    Perhaps more important is the misaligned policy that has the City in the parking business while zoning requires new developments to provide on site parking. The major example is the Maritime Yard project which required on site parking while an empty city owned garage is adjacent. We’ve continued this policy with Ironworks and The Pearl projects.
    The pay kiosks in Haviland and Webster are convoluted, but are hardly the issue at hand. Simplifying the parking rate structure would go a long way towards solving that issue.

  2. Lifelong Teacher

    I just refuse to shop or eat in SoNo because of the parking issue. We pay plen to the city in our real estate and personal property taxes. For my condominium and modest car, the total is around $7,000. There are plenty of places to go for free.

    I would imagine lots of people feel the same way.

  3. Lifelong Teacher

    Plenty. Sorry,

  4. M Allen

    It still remains that South Norwalk is the primary focus of this City. No matter what some people say, it is that focus on South Norwalk that has resulted in downtown Norwalk being allowed to slide into into decay. I hope gentrifying SoNo was worth it because it resulted in degentrifying other parts of Norwalk.
    As much as I hated to pay for it, paid parking was necessary, although perhaps overpriced, but necessary so that hundreds of cars for area renters didn’t use it as their own personal parking lot. At least it is possible to find a space down there when you want to use a restaurant/bar/store.

  5. Bryan Meek

    You can come to a meeting of the NPA, read the financials on line, or make stuff up out of thin air.
    It is hard to compare Norwalk to Stamford directly, but Stamford made a $2.5 million profit off its parking operations in FY2012 according to the city’s annual report. Stamford in turn took $3 million in cash out of their fund to pay for other things leaving them in a $700,000 deficit. Norwalk strives to be revenue neutral and has with some fortune over the last five years managed a very small profit which is being retained in line with requirements for maintaining adequate capital reserves. The city of Norwalk’s parking operations cost the taxpayers ZERO and the proceeds are being used to pay down our $11+ million in debt we owe on the garages.
    Our revenues are a little north of $5 million and our operating expenses are around $4. We pay $1 million a year in interest and principal on our debt which paid for the various parking garages, facilities, and repairs. We remove our own snow. We pay for our own equipment. We own more cameras around town than any other entity, which have been instrumental in catching several criminals. Every piece of equipment that goes into the system is carefully reviewed and where possible matched against revenue streams from advertising and other sources. Our other income from ATMs, Advertising, and Artwork commissions is small but does pay for itself and offsets our expenses, not to mention the aesthetic intangibles.
    I understand that no one wants to pay for parking. But one way or another it does have to be paid for. Whether it is through higher property taxes, parking fees, or fee in lieu of parking, no one is going to build, maintain, and operate this system without paying for it. A healthy debate could ensue from this. But let’s look at the facts and not let emotions rule here.
    When the city was running the system it was constantly being shortchanged by various councils for capital projects and budgets. The result was we were on a pace to condemn both Haviland and Yankee Doodle garages. We have $20 million worth of lots and garages and they need to be maintained when they need it. Overhanging concrete structures aren’t something to neglect. This year we actually have no capital allocated for major repairs as we have finally caught up after years and years of neglect. In the coming years we will be installing revenue neutral systems to help us get real time data and monitor usage better. This in turn will allow us to more intelligently price our parking to meet demand. As well your smart car system or hand held will be able to tell you in advance where adequate parking can be found. For example, it might tell you there are spaces out on Washington or it could tell you that it is packed, so duck into the garage. This in turn will cut down on traffic circling around looking for spots. This is just one kind of project that would be nearly impossible to get moving if it were in the hands of a political body. Our facilities are clean, well lit, and safe and getting smarter every day.
    When the city was running the parking operations our cost curve was growing at over 10% a year. Today we have kept costs around 2.5% growth over the last 5 years at roughly 4 million per year. This includes snow removal, which in 2011 was $500,000 alone. When the city was running things the average parking ticket cost us $55 to issue. That’s right for a $25 ticket. The cost of parking were it left up to the city would be well over $6 million a year now and in the same conditions they were 20 years ago.
    The vendor we have running things now is a world wide operation with experience in running things and has to compete for its existence. It doesn’t get to bargain with us for its job and no judge is going to tell us how much to pay them. They show up to work everyday. They do what we reasonably ask them to do as quickly as they can. We don’t have to go before the council for every little thing that we would have in the past. We have an incentive plan in place for them that makes them more effective in our interest and that includes negative consequences for overly aggressive ticketing.
    On the subject of ticketing….The fact is we are writing fewer tickets over the last two years than any time in recorded history. This can be attributed to a few factors. One is compliance. Two is we have made it easier to pay for parking than ever. I’m sorry for those who can’t read the 1. 2. 3. that we have clearly marked out on every single pay station, but really it is much easier than driving a car. Please think about that the next time you are driving. Or then, maybe please don’t if its that much of a distraction.
    I could go on here, or you could come to a meeting every 4th Wednesday at the Maritime garage 6pm and find out more if you’d like.
    Arguments can be made for and against insourcing or subsidizing, but in the current climate I can hardly see the council deciding to spend a few extra million on parking given the other more pressing items in its budget.
    Mayor Knopp made a very wise decision in outsourcing the parking operations for the city. Mayor Moccia has strengthened this move in his tenure. There is already a SONO collaborative that we work closely with and listen to on a frequent basis. They all know how to contact us and we have offered every single vendor the opportunity to work with us and make it easier for their patrons. Some have chosen to and some just chose to vent. We can’t force them to do either. They have to come to us. We welcome the opportunity.

    Bryan Meek.
    Chairman, Norwalk Parking Authority.

    P.S. While I’m on the topic of subsidies, we are giving the maritime aquarium $8 million a year. As a taxpayer, parking cost you what you chose to pay. The maritime is costing every Norwalk family of four $400 a year. And that doesn’t even get you a membership. Thank you.

  6. Mike Mushak

    Mr. Meek , thank you for your in-depth analysis. It still doesn’t change the widespread perception that it is hard to park in SoNo. Also, the tickets are ridiculous. I have friends who will never drive there again, unless they come to my house first and I drive them there!
    Why don’t you and the rest if the authority make a visit on a Friday night and try to use the confusing kiosks, and watch for about ten minutes as others try to use them with lines of folks behind them. You may be shocked at how tricky it is. In fact, it appears they are designed to frustrate and increase the potential for fines.
    I am relatively intelligent, and here is what happened to me this past Weds night, when I went to see the high concept Bad Grandpa (highly recommended!) at the cinema. The directions were confusing but I used to them since I live here, but a newbie would be stunned I think. I entered my space number, and it asked to enter the amount of hours.
    I wanted 3 hours so I could have a drink at Barcelona after the movie. The keypad didn’t work at all, so the choice was either maximum or 2 hours. I had no idea what “maximum” meant (24 hours?), so I was forced to enter 2 hours, which wasn’t enough time. I had a line behind me and the whole thing was stressful and I was in a hurry to get to the movie. Luckily I didn’t get a ticket but experiences like this are what the business community are angry about as folks don’t forget, and it makes a huge difference in their bottom lines.
    Along with the structural changes Jackie Lightfield recommends, which are smart , it’s also the details like I describe that are crucial, as that user interface with the kiosk is the direct experience and first impression visitors have with SoNo and Norwalk in General, and if that’s screwed up then the entire visitor experience is affected, and remembered .
    You need to work on this, and stop being so defensive. There are problems that need solving and we need to work to get it done ASAP.

  7. Karma is a ****!

    Silly Mushak. If you go to the movies, parking is free!

  8. jlightfield

    @bryan meek, I think you are conflating the parking authority’s wants with the City’s needs in your admirable defense of the status quo. The city needs a functioning downtown, whether Sono or Norwalk center. I get it, you are defending the policy you’ve been dealt, however, the policy was indeed put in place by Knopp many years ago and then simply left on autopilot with an assumption that the implementation was all that needed tweaking.
    I think the policy is in conflict with the economic growth of Norwalk, land use and development. The rationale used then, that the parking was subsidized by taxpayers and with a move to an authority that the users of said parking would pay for it has proven to be fundamentally flawed. Parking policy is not a zero sum game. In a downtown, the property values are directly tied to the ability of commercial space to maximize its market value. That can only happen with economic policies that address market conditions and incentivize the opportunities for growth.
    Sono suffers from a series of bad policy decisions compounded by its geographic location. The parking rates, enforcement, and run down city infrastructure all contribute to a “hurry up and leave” perception instead go what should be a “please stay awhile” perception. So in the end, depressed property values contribute less to the grand list, shifting the tax burden right back to all residential tax payers. I’m sure some could argue the exact monetary values of these policies, but the fact is that type of analysis was never done at the outset and has not been reviewed since.
    Your example of the subsidy accorded to the Maritime Aquarium is another perfect example of misaligned policy. Having a cultural attraction in our city is a good thing. But the contribution of the City’s waterfront assets and subsequent bonding should have required more conditions that the City would achieve economic benefits more directly instead of what we’ve gotten. Even something as simple as free admission for all Norwalk schoolchildren would have had a direct community impact by guiding the Aquarium as a community resource instead of what we’ve seen all these years.

  9. Mike Mushak

    Good points Jackie. It is the elusive “sweet spot” that Meek seeks but can’t seem to find, which is a delicate balance of taxpayer subsidies and user fees that does not rely on aggressive and counter-productive fines at the expense of angering everyone to the point they stay away. In other words, smart incentives as well just punitive fines.
    Karma, you silly thing. Parking for the movies is only free before 6 pm, and still requires using the atrocious kiosk before validation in the theater. None if this is obvious from the poor signage in the kiosk.

  10. Bryan Meek

    Mechanical issues aside which are unfortunate but impossible to avoid, we really can’t make the pay stations more simple. The big numbers are different colors and right on the machines with written instructions. 1. Put in your space # here. 2. Your money here. 3. Get your ticket here. The alternative is meters, which are expensive and prone to more mechanical issues (read higher rates would be needed).
    There is another option. Pay by cell phone is our fastest growth of payment options. It does cost a few cents extra, but if you are in a hurry or just think its cool you can skip the lines.
    We are moving as fast as we can with the tech plans, but these things can’t be done overnight. Once we have some better metrics, we can start do demand based pricing that makes sense. Right now we are better off than we were five years ago and we have a five year plan to make things even better. Given there are macroeconomic forces here we can not control, I’d say the glass is half full. Problems can be acknowledged, but we need to stay focused on solutions.
    We are already doing demand based pricing to some effect. The data we can collect showed us that the commuter and daily parking is much, much less elastic to demand than the transient spaces that attract diners and shoppers. That is why we kept transient rates flat and only put the increases where demand was inelastic. We endeavor to be as proactive as possible but can be reactive too when necessary and quickly.
    Turning this back over to the body politic only guarantees bottlenecks in the system. Not to mention, you’d be asking the taxpayers to invest in parking against competing needs like safety and education.
    Again, no one likes to pay for parking and even fewer like parking tickets. But it is just a reality of life here in our little town and everyone who wants to help is welcome to. I honestly wish we would get more feedback than the unconstructive, baseless complaints we are used to. It would help us. Right now we get about 200 customer calls/emails a month. Most of those simply ask about the waiting time for permits.
    One last time, the NPA is on the hook for $11 million in debt. We are paying it down while maintaining concrete structures that people walk under. We can’t afford to let these things go. Free parking or insourcing would put this at risk.
    P.S. I am not at all against the Maritime and can’t wait to hop on the new catamaran they are building. The investment is worthwhile, but they need to think bigger. I think the city or state should buy Manresa now that it is decommissioned and make some kind of Maritime Research University there similar to aspects of both UConn Avery Point and SUNY Maritime with marine biology, naval architecture, and marine mechanics program for vocation education. The maritime could build some bigger tanks there for larger animals and start competing with Boston and Baltimore.

  11. Dennis DiManis

    People are more likely deterred by the mediocre overpriced restaurants and by the nearby treacherous neighborhood than they are by a couple bucks parking fee.

  12. The Deal

    Norwalk is becoming an increasingly toxic place to be, very stressful. It shouldn’t be this way……..I’m looking for a better place to live.

  13. Don’t Panic

    This aquarium has a long way to go before it approaches SUNY Maritime.
    Pay by cell phone is pushing your infrastructure costs even further onto the customer so it should be cheaper not more expensive.

  14. Bryan Meek

    Don’t panic. Regarding the Maritime, Rome was not built in a day. Your other point is well taken. The pay by cell option does cost fractionally more, but it is an option and not required. The growth rates on the usage have not flattened to a point where we can do more to justify rate changes. That could always change and I expect it will some day.

  15. Julie

    Well that was, interesting. Thank you Mr. Meeks for unpacking all that for us simpleton patrons and citizes. But, but, the kiosks gotta go, unless of course the motivation is something other than (revenue neutral) as in say 1 million profit annually. You say that there are incentives for the guys in the pickups at the same time you say the issuace of tickets has gone down, er, duh, everyone in town and patrons from out of town has been ticketed, at least once. The message is out, Norwalk Parking Authority is out to pull hard cash out of our purse’s and wallet’s. Yep we got the message alright. And all of us has stood in line at the kisoks frustrated and in frigid temps and rain and run back out again to beat the white pick up vultures circling their prey. Yep message is loud and clear alright. Honestly I dont know how the business owners put up with it. Wait, many havent, they have come and gone and come and gone. Figure with all that ser, revenue neutral surplus we would see some real innovations say like, chargng stations for electric cars and say like, smart phone friendly payments. Even us locals forget to look down for the numbers its just not natural or user friendly, at all but hey all the plate readers and cameras are cool and make lots of well, all that reveue neutral cash right? BTW, even with all that snow, half a million? Whispers in Bryan’s ear, pssst, you got ripped son. Last one out, turn out the lights..

  16. Suzanne

    “Some have chosen to and some just chose to vent. We can’t force them to do either. They have to come to us. We welcome the opportunity.” While you provide an excellent run-down of the economics of parking in South Norwalk, Mr. Meek, I think the quote above is a problem. I read about Sassafras shutting down earlier this year in the paper. This is not the first I have heard of the kiosk issue. I tried to use my cell phone to pay for a parking space over near the Garden Cinemas and never did succeed (I do not know if this is the same system to which you refer.) The point is, if I, as Suzanne Citizen, am reading about these things and know about them, how is it that the parking council to which you belong (I do not know the proper name) cannot address the issues I am reading about in the daily paper? People vent when they feel they are not being heard. This could be avoided if you did not wait for them to come to you but, rather, you were a ready RESOURCE for you to go to them and address the issues. If the kiosks are a problem, why defend them? Find a better way to make them work that is easy for everyone. Or, adjust the directions to make them even clearer than you feel is necessary in your experience. This parking business should just be a given, a part of the infrastructure that makes South Norwalk a success, not an impediment to citizens participating in whatever commercial or public places it has to offer.

  17. Bryan Meek

    You can operate a PC. Type on end. And the kiosk is you problem? I’m open for ways to make it easier, but you aren’t presenting a strong case. Thanks for your help. Alas, I will sign off here unless something constructive is suggested. I have already made myself more accessible than most other committees, but here you see it still is not enough for some, who ironically never have time to help out.

  18. M Allen

    Thanks Bryan. It definitely provides some insight into the workings of the Authority, which I’m sure most people never had. And its good a commissioner can come around and speak to it. Appreciate it. Doesn’t Stamford use the same kiosks? No idea if their merchants have the same degree of issues or not.

  19. Suzanne

    Mr. Meek, Please, do not take things so personally. I was just making the observation: you said that people should come to you if they have problems. I am saying that there has been coverage on the issues mentioned here by others on the thread. I am suggesting, constructively, that by the time these issues reach the papers, rather than dismissing the people as “venting”, it would be good to “cut it off at the pass” and APPROACH THEM to assuage the issue and, perhaps, correct the problems cited rather than sitting back and waiting for these people to come to you. The suggestion was based on what you have said, which I said I appreciate very much and still do, and I believe is a way to lessen the conflict and correct or at least explain to a business owner and others who find it difficult to use the kiosks. To dismiss these issues as “venting” only reflects poorly on the very good work you are doing (especially to pay down the debt.) If approaching those who are talking to the press is so heinous to you, then let someone else do it. With all of the hard financial work you have been doing, these might seem like little things. They are not. You don’t need to run a popularity contest but, it is important to show some effort to those who are losing their businesses and those who are skipping parking in South Norwalk all together because something like a kiosk is too frustrating. I think it is ridiculous, actually, and taking business away from an area that needs it. Now, you might not agree with this assessment but there is no need to be unpleasant. The fact is, you are doing a great job but the PR and parking in SoNo needs work. It’s is just like the monetary issue: it is part of the nuts and bolts that make the whole thing run and run successfully so that more people come to South Norwalk and more people patronize the businesses there.

  20. Jlightfield

    @bryan meek, your market demand is not exclusive the demand elasticity in Norwalk. It us actually the economic competition between every downtown in coastal Fairfield county.
    I can park in a municipal garage in downtown Stamford for example with a pay kiosk for $3 after 6pm for the entire night. I don’t, as a consumer, have to estimate how many hours I want I just type in my space number and then pick the $3 dollar option which also explains on the screen that I’m good for the night, and then choose how I want to pay, cash or credit card. Note that there are a couple if key differences in this experience from a Norwalk pay kiosk. I don’t have to figure out hardware buttons for payment my options are on a screen and I choose to pay at the end. Norwalk’s process is backwards, you type in your space, choose how to pay and then figure time out and finally pay. For the record I did suggest to the Parking Authority at the time of the kiosk installation that the payment flow was convoluted. The reply was that they can’t be reprogrammed. Yet I find this same model operating differently in other cities. Go figure.
    You keep referencing that the criticisms here suggest free parking. That is A straw man argument. What has been said is the cost is too high. When it costs me $5 to park in Sono for 4 day time hours and $3 in Stamford you have a competitive market pricing issue.
    The $11 million in debt you reference is an interesting one since the original garage debt was retired, I hear. So if there is an ongoing 11 million in debt it is because of policy decisions like buying dozens of pay kiosks, new trucks, license plate readers etc.

  21. Bryan Meek

    Norwalk Finance continually refunds debt and capital projects add to the total over time. The equipment is marginal compared the outlays on the garages. There is over 7 million left to pay off the Maritime garage which I believe was refunded in 2010 to get a lower rate.

  22. Bryan Meek

    The Maritime garage is $1 after 5 p.m. Yankee Doodle is free after 6 p.m.
    If a company chooses to sell ornaments that cost $1 for $30 dollars, expand its square footage in the midst of things like amazon and ebay coming on line, we can’t control that. Similarly, if a place decides to charge $30 for half a plate of ravioli and people don’t go there as often, we can’t control that either.
    I’ll look into the kiosk complaints, but it might be we are looking at different vendors for these apart from Stamford (?).

  23. Rick

    @ Bryan Meek

    I think most people are willing to pay for parking – and accept that fines are given to those who don’t pay or go over the meter. I object to getting a ticket while waiting in line to feed the meter at water st. (yes that happened, though i was able to appeal it)

    I used to live on Washington St. and I saw that parking attendant in the white pickup truck hide and wait for people to make mistakes- and then pounce out of nowhere , and then proceed to berate and yell at the poor sap who wasn’t quick enough. At one point I was given tickets daily though I had a permit to park. I was once given a ticket while pulled over with hazard lights on to check my tire for all of 30 seconds. It’s gotten out of hand and everyone knows it.

    It’s simply the most aggressive, predatory parking enforcement I’ve ever witnessed – and that includes NYC where I lived for a time. It’s harassment and the word is out.

    You make a great case for the system in place- but the the prevailing wisdom is still to avoid SoNo at all costs and with good reason.

  24. Norwalk Lifer

    I have to defend those who manage the Haviland Parking Garage, Last Friday night, my husband struggled with the kiosk, which surprised me.

    The parking attendant came over and asked if we needed help, that struck me as curious; you have a self serve parking system, but yet you must have an attendant on hand to manage the issues with it.

    there is a simple way to resolve this, it’s called ergonomic engineering; my husband and I are both in technology, he is a physicist, and a rare one; one who can work with hardware.

    So I may be biased, but when a person like that struggles with a kiosk, and for the record, that kiosk should be more simplistic than you might think, I can see the need for an attendant, but doesn’t that defeat the purpose?

    Norwalk Lifer

  25. Norwalk Lifer

    @ Rick, you cite a quality of life issue here, you shouldn’t as a resident of Washington Street, be harassed in such a manner.

    And you are right about NYC efficiency when it comes to parking, it’s a “necessity”.

    But here, it’s more of a hobby for the residents of South Norwalk, it would appear that while there are those who cry “Why does South Norwalk get all the attention? what about me?” I would argue that the economic growth this town has seen has been thru the cooperation and compliance of the residents of South Norwalk. We are a more laid back part of town.

    If someone put paid parking at any of the big box stores (and let’s not get started about the sub standard design of the Costco parking lot) then more residents would be screaming bloody murder.

    Now I cite a nice encounter with the parking attendant on duty last Friday night, he was courteous, and tried to be helpful, but I wonder, why is his help required in the first place?

    Norwalk Lifer

  26. Rick

    it’s good to hear that the attendant was courteous. I don’t blame them for the most part as they are just doing a job.

    But the one guy in particular who usually drives the pickup at night is who I’m talking about. Anyone who frequents Sono knows who I’m talking about.

    I hate to make it so personal but this guy is really just a complete a**hole to everyone down there. Again, I don’t expect him to apologize or buy me drink to make me feel better- but also don’t like the way this guy treats people. I wish I knew his name- but in any case, he’s unprofessional. Just give the ticket out and move along, no need to yell and scream at the patron even when they protest. He’s killing the whole vibe down there.

Leave a Reply

Recent Comments