Keene business owner asks council to consider removing Central Square kiosk

A Keene business owner has asked the city to consider removing a parking kiosk from the sidewalk in front of two establishments she owns, citing customer complaints about the device.

Installed last summer, the kiosk replaced coin-fed meters for the 14 parking spots between West Street and Winter Street on the west side of Central Square.

In a March 27 letter to the City Council, Dorrie Masten, the proprietor of Pedraza’s Mexican Restaurant and the adjacent Pour House, called the kiosk “a huge hindrance on our business” and blamed it for a “tremendous amount of upset with the community.”

In an interview Thursday, Masten said customers frequently grouse about their frustration with the system, which involves inputting one’s license plate number.

“Before, you used to be able to get out of your car, put a coin in the meter and go about your business,” she said. “Now, you have to get out of the car, realize you need your license plate number … walk back and hope that someone else is not in front of you, and also hope that it’s not raining.”

Mayor Kendall W. Lane on Thursday referred Masten’s letter to city staff — a standard procedure for items that city employees may be able to respond to themselves, according to Public Works Director Kurt D. Blomquist. Staff may be able to address certain complaints, such as glare from the sun obscuring the kiosk’s screen, he said.

Ward 1 Councilor Stephen Hooper said he was wary of “pulling things out and putting things back in,” but is sympathetic to Masten’s concerns. “I tend to avoid the kiosk over in the Gilbo area,” he said, referring to the Commercial Street parking lot.

While the city has a few other parking kiosks in lots or garages, the Central Square machine is the only one in use for on-street parking.
Blomquist said the city installed it last year, as part of a Department of Public Works project that reconfigured some of the sidewalk between West and Winter streets, the stretch that contains Pedraza’s. As part of that work, the department replaced raised flowerbeds with more sidewalk space.

The previous year, Masten had asked the city to perform similar work, which she said would accommodate outdoor seating in front of her businesses. The City Council considered different versions of the project — including one in which Masten offered to shoulder part of the cost — before ultimately declining to fund it in July 2016.

The work done 11 months later was paid for with money appropriated for downtown maintenance. Medard K. Kopczynski, then the city manager, said aging trees, drainage issues and the difficulty of plowing the sidewalk made the work necessary. Masten’s request had not prompted the project, he said.

The kiosk went in after city staff consulted with Masten and other business owners, Blomquist said. City officials have weighed converting more on-street parking downtown to kiosks, and the location presented an opportunity for a trial run, he said.

Masten initially supported the kiosk, “as it would clear up the sidewalk, make more room for a patio and be aesthetically more appealing,” she wrote in her letter. But sustained complaints led her to turn against it.

“I can’t continue to have people complain to us about the darn thing,” she wrote in a March 27 post on her Facebook page. The post described the gripes she hears from customers, including waiting in lines, the inconvenience of needing to know your license plate number and the extra distance seniors have to walk from their cars.

A poll included with the post drew 106 responses, with 10 percent favoring the kiosk and 90 percent backing the old meters.
She said her request was not just about her businesses, but for other downtown merchants and restaurateurs as well.

“If they eliminate or make the parking any tougher, people are just going to go to Chili’s,” she said. “… They’re not going to patronize our downtown.”

She would like to find a “happy medium,” such as a more user-friendly kiosk or so-called smart meters, which take credit cards.
A recent city estimate put the cost of replacing 470 coin-fed meters in Keene with smart meters at between $225,000 and $250,000.
Blomquist said the kiosks offer several advantages over meters. They enhance accountability, he said, barring drivers from using someone else’s leftover payment. They also allow parking attendants to work more efficiently and make snow plowing easier, he said.

Keene’s first foray into kiosks fell flat. In late 2011, the city began testing two cash-only kiosks for 47 parking spaces on Main Street. Amid mechanical glitches and user complaints, the city cut the experiment short.

In 2015, the city put two kiosks in the Commercial Street lot. Last year, in addition to Central Square, the Roxbury Plaza and Wells Street parking lots saw kiosks installed. The new batch of kiosks accepts cards.

Randy L. Filiault, an at-large city councilor and member of the facilities and infrastructure committee, said the city should test different options.

“I think before we go in kiosking the whole city … we should really try a couple of kiosks just to see which ones the consumers like best,” he said.

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