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Start looking up

Published 7:23pm Saturday, May 11, 2013

There are some exciting things happening in downtown Suffolk recently, and Mayor Linda T. Johnson justifiably proud to share information about them during the Suffolk State of the City address at the Hilton Garden Inn on Tuesday.

Capping a long list of economic development achievements that have been accomplished or announced recently was a plan by The Monument Companies to convert one side of a downtown block into apartments and retail and commercial spaces. The development could transform the 100 block of West Washington Street from a broken-down, battered eyesore at the center of the city’s main downtown district to a vibrant, hip community that could help lead the revitalization of the entire downtown core.

Judging from the quality and popularity of their previous projects in the downtown area — including converting a vacant warehouse on Commerce Street into an apartment complex and renovating another group of warehouses into loft and office space on East Washington Street — there is reason to expect the new project will make a big difference in the look and feel of the southern side of West Washington Street. New and existing businesses in that area and along North Main Street are expected to contribute to the transformation. If all goes as planned, Suffolk’s downtown will be a destination for visitors and a realistically viable place to call home.

But if the city cannot arrive at a parking solution, the transformation will be incomplete, at best. Suffolk’s combination of two-hour streetside parking and inadequate lots on Cherry Street, Saratoga Street and behind the courthouse will not satisfy the needs of people moving into the 68 new loft units Monument expects to build, nor will it be sufficient for the people the city hopes to attract for shopping and dining.

Andy Damiani, a former mayor and staunch advocate of downtown Suffolk, who has a set of offices on the second floor of a West Washington Street building and owns a couple of buildings in the corridor, has called for years for the city to look up to begin solving some of its problems.

Damiani is right. Suffolk cannot continue trying to accomplish big things by building out. The days are gone when households could be counted on to have just one vehicle and visitors would come downtown by the carload. Today, households have two or more cars each, and people headed downtown for shopping or dining do so in separate vehicles. There are more cars than ever looking for parking spots. The solution, as Damiani has said, is to build up.

In the midst of its own extensive and expensive building campaign, the city of Suffolk should begin a serious parking assessment for the downtown area, with the ultimate goal of adding spaces while preserving the existing retail and commercial space. One obvious — though admittedly expensive — solution is a parking garage.

Downtown Suffolk’s prospects are looking up. Perhaps it’s time for Suffolk to solve some intractable parking problems by doing the same.

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