Wheaton anticipates need for more parking downtown

Downtown Wheaton is enjoying what can only be described as a rejuvenation.

An entertainment series in the newly renovated Memorial Park and the return of outdoor dining on a lively stretch of Hale Street will help restore some normalcy this summer.

New stores and restaurants are popping up all over downtown, proof that the city's $34 million investment in an infrastructure and streetscape project is attracting private development, officials say.

What could be next on the list of renewal efforts? The city has started looking at the possibility of a new parking garage to help keep pace with the employee and customer demand created by the downtown growth.

"I really look at this as kind of the exclamation point to the downtown redevelopment," Mayor Phil Suess said.

The idea of a parking garage is highly conceptual, one element of a broader study on parking needs, restrictions and the existing inventory downtown. The goal is to stay ahead of parking issues as new businesses take over long-vacant properties and bring more visitors to the shopping and dining district, especially on weekend nights.

Officials haven't determined a timeline for such a project, but city council members have started discussing one potential site.

City planners say replacing a surface lot behind city hall with a parking garage is a viable option because it's city-owned property, eliminating the cost of land acquisition. It's also tucked away from the main downtown arteries but still within walking distance of a Hale Street restaurant row.

Suess said a city hall garage would address neighborhood concerns about overflow parking on residential streets around Memorial Park, a summer magnet that recently underwent a $5 million restoration, the centerpiece of which is a new band shell.

The Wheaton Park District is now finalizing the lineup for a Memorial Park entertainment series expected to start in early June with pandemic restrictions on capacity.

"With the activities that will be occurring in Memorial Park, you're going to see a large demand on parking, we believe," City Manager Mike Dzugan said.

The city contracted Walker Consultants to get a sense of what a parking structure might look like on the surface lot north of city hall.

The firm indicated building a garage with four tiers all above ground would cost roughly $10 million, though that's a preliminary estimate.

The site could accommodate a parking deck with about 330 total spaces, resulting in a net gain of more than 250 stalls, while staying within the bulk regulations of the city's zoning rules.

The spaces would be used by both downtown visitors and employees, freeing up premier spots in the Wheaton Place garage on Wesley Street for customer use.

"The price tag is high, but I think it's something that we could be looking at," City Councilwoman Erica Bray-Parker said.

Other council members said they still want to consider another location that's been floated for a parking structure over the years: the east surface lot of the Wheaton Public Library.

"The library parking lot, I actually think that is a good location for public parking," Councilwoman Suzanne Fitch said. "I think it's close enough to businesses on Main Street. I also think it's a really easy walk to go from the library parking lot to a Memorial Park event or concert, especially with appropriate signage letting people know that that's an option."

Fitch and other officials stressed that it's difficult to quantify what the parking demand will look like post-pandemic. Dzugan said the city can gather parking data this summer based on the events at Memorial Park and the Hale Street dining scene.

"You're going to have a very busy, active environment on Hale Street, where I think we can start getting some counts," he said.

Amante Marketplace, a home and lifestyle goods boutique, and Wheaton House, a new restaurant, also are opening on Hale in the near future.

The surface lot behind Wheaton City Hall is a viable option for a possible parking garage downtown, officials say. Daily Herald file photo
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