They paved paradise all right because this Mystic parking lot—and the brouhaha surrounding it—is anything but.
“It’s a complete mess,” said tenant Rob Leva. “I have seen traffic backed up to the  Bank down the street, people backed up because others are backing out of here…it’s just creating problems. It sucks.”
Leva is referring to the newly installed credit card swipe payment system in the parking lot owned in part by .
Spokesperson Athena Yannitsas clarified that the center “owns only a portion of the parking lot that is affected by the recent changes, however manages the entire parking lot operation.”
Motorists looking to shop, eat, stroll or do business downtown and who choose this lot on Water Street must swipe a credit card at an unmanned gatehouse and are charged $3 an hour to park. For condominium tenants and business owners the rates are a bit lower, but were recently doubled without notice, many claim. And, to make matters worse, business owners and others agreed that the credit card swipe process has not only the potential to be abused but could leave people vulnerable to identity theft.
In a statement, Yannitsas said that the decision of how to improve the operation of the parking lot was not made overnight.
“Our board of directors is an all-volunteer board comprised of local
residents and business people. The board, which has an obligation to oversee the fiscal condition of the center, evaluated the parking lot and concluded it was necessary to improve its operation,” she wrote.
“After conducting an extensive research over a two-year period, the board decided to convert to an automated system to manage the parking lot more efficiently, and achieve better control over gate revenue.”
A system many have doubts about.
“I worry about this technology and its vulnerability,” said a Mystic mom walking her dogs as she pushed a baby stroller toward the lot.
“The other thing is we go to [a Water Street restaurant] a lot and we used to bring [out-of-town] friends too but I won’t use this [parking lot] anymore. We’ll walk the mile or so. But it’s a hard walk for some up the hill…people cannot make that hill to come down and eat out. It just doesn’t seem like a good idea at all.”
And then there’s the business owners, many—though not all—up in arms over the Mystic Arts Center decision to install the credit card system, raise rates and “generally just be bad neighbors,” according to owner Christine Kurcinik.
She has been one of a number of outspoken critics of the arts center move to install a unmanned pay system many consider unfriendly to neighbors, business, locals, visitors and customers.
“I don’t have a problem with them making money or using their property the way they want," Kurcinik said. "But I do have a problem with the way they did this and, yeah, their greed."
In a letter to the Mystic Arts Center Board of Trustees, Kurcinik wrote that, “In your haste to make more profit off of merchants, residents, and visitors…you have created an overwhelming current of anger and animosity.”
“I realize you have determined you are in fact sitting on what constitutes an asphalt gold mine when it comes to making additional money…but there is no respect for my business or me. There is no respect for the residents of the condos, the apartments or the residents of the town. There is no respect for the merchants who rely on tourists and foot traffic. You have made poor decisions as of late and my only hope is that you rectify this situation quickly,” she wrote.
But Yannitsas countered that the center, not unlike other businesses, for profit or not, has been struggling and seen its income shrink.
“Many state and federal grants have been eliminated; foundation and
corporate giving has been reduced; and individual giving has dropped as many people are struggling with personal finances,” she wrote.
Yannnitsas said that in addition to property taxes, annual parking lot expenses including maintenance, utilities and insurance run around $45,000 “excluding payroll costs.” And in May, “we also spent over $16,000 to clean, resurface and restripe the parking lot.”
Bad economy or not, many business owners whose survival depends on parking and access have been outspoken on their opposition to the new lot arrangement.
Bruce Carpenter, owner copied his letter to the media and has posted it on the window at his business where he calls for the community to “write letters” in protest. While Carpenter was not available at press time and employee was.
Thirty-one-year-old Tom Clarke hung out at the Marble as a teen and now, decades later has come back to work at the popular downtown coffee shop. And while seemingly easygoing, he becomes animated when speaking to the parking lot controversy:
“We work here …work. Why should we pay? But it’s not about us. It’s about [customers] and the business.”
Clark said Carpenter is losing business.
“We are losing that business because people don’t want to swipe their credit card and pay $3 to pull in for a pound of coffee,” he said.”It’s bad business. It’s just not a good scenario.”
The entrance to the lot is cluttered with signage that seeks to explain the process. And one sign reads that the first 20 minutes of parking are free, but a credit card—MasterCard and VISA only—must be used and it is only until one leaves the lot and swipes again do they know
if they made it under the 20 minute window—on the system’s clock—given they receive no time stamped ticket, opponents argue.
“They changed the rules of the game without letting anyone know. They just did it and said, ‘you have to live with it.’ No,” Kurcinik said.
But there are merchants that support the Mystic Arts Center’s parking lot business.
“It’s not their job to give out free parking,” said Catherine McHugh, owner of Catherine M and in downtown.
“They have the right to do what they want with their property. They are a very important and integral part of the [community],” McHugh said. “This has gotten blown out of proportion.”
McHugh wrote a letter to Kurcinik saying she not only supports the art center and its business plan, but sees “nothing greedy” about the parking lot increase and change.
“…maligning this very conscientious staff is unnecessary,” McHugh wrote. “They own this property. I believe better communication would have helped before the system was put into operation. I do not however think they deserve the vitriol and rudeness they are suffering from a small group of people.”
Yannitsas said the center’s “share of the parking lot revenue helps to fund our education classes, exhibitions and public programs.” Art center classes and programs may contain a fee; all exhibits are free and open to the public. She also said that a “full-length letter to our constituents regarding the parking lot” would be posted Wednesday on their website at www.mysticarts.org.
To help clients and to “compensate” them for the increased price to park Kurcinik is offering $1 to $3 off services that take more than an hour.
“My clients mean everything. If I have to pay, I will,” she said.