December 13, 2013

Augusta council considers beefed-up downtown security

More people living in the downtown has meant vandals are more active too.

By Keith Edwards kedwards@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

AUGUSTA — As an increasing number of people live in downtown, city officials are looking to help keep residents — and their cars — safe and secure.

click image to enlarge

Tobias Parkhurst

Staff file photo by Joe Phelan

Part of that is a proposal, going to city councilors next week, to install security cameras at parking areas where some residents’ cars have been broken into.

But the changes also include a rethinking of Augusta Parking District rules to allow downtown residents to park their cars closer on Commercial Street, closer to their apartments, in spots otherwise limited to two hour parking.

“Really what we are is a downtown setup for offices, transitioning to a downtown with residents,” said Tobias Parkhurst, a downtown resident, landlord and member of the committee that oversees the Augusta Parking District, a quasi-municipal entity that controls parking rules and permitting downtown. “The neighborhood is changing. We need to make accommodations.”

Parkhurst said previously, the parking district treated downtown residents looking to park overnight just like it treated people working downtown for the day. They’d get a permit allowing them to park only in a specific parking lot. While officials tried to get them into lots as close to their apartments as possible, Parkhurst said the lots closest to the downtown were already full. So residents new to downtown would get assigned spots farther away, in some cases along dimly lit railroad tracks several blocks from their apartments.

While lots closer by would be near capacity during the day, when the workday ends most of those lots clear out and are left nearly empty overnight.

“So, at night, you’ve got vehicles parked overnight that are isolated and spread all around these downtown lots,” Parkhurst said. “That makes them vulnerable, in my mind. The idea of this is, rather than driving past all those empty parking spots and parking, in your assigned lot, by the railroad tracks, under a tree, in the dark, you can park on Commercial Street, under the lights, closer to home, where others are parked. I haven’t seen any issues other than break-ins. It’s not a dangerous downtown. But there is some peace of mind when you’re parking in a well-lit area, with a camera on you, and your car is somewhere it can be monitored.”

New rules allowing residents with the proper permit to park at any time on Commercial Street in what are now two-hour parking spots go into effect Jan. 1.

A proposed council order to install two or three security cameras downtown, likely pointed at the Commercial Street area, which runs behind the blocks on the west side of Water Street, is expected to go to councilors next week.

City Manager William Bridgeo said the cost could be paid for with downtown tax increment financing money, dedicated funds generated by development and targeted for downtown projects.

“This is a response to the terrific growth in the commercial and residential activity downtown,” Bridgeo said. “It has been a council priority for years and years to make that happen. So it seems reasonable to make a modest investment to deter this type of problem.”

Councilor Jeffrey Bilodeau expressed concern that installing security cameras to watch over private property in one area could prompt requests for more cameras elsewhere in the city.

“I’m concerned about setting precedent,” said Bilodeau, who said he’s had his car scratched while he was parked at Walmart, illustrating that vandalism to vehicles can take place anywhere.

Parkhurst said he had one tenant whose car was broken into twice in six months. That tenant has since moved out. He said he’s also had his own car broken into. A window was smashed and his glovebox was gone through by the culprit. He said while he doesn’t worry he or his wife will be attacked downtown, he said residents would likely feel more secure if they could park closer to home.

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