Precious and few

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Vineyard Haven desperately needs parking, particularly in-season parking.

Every day at The Times, we do what we call the parking lot shuffle. “Who owns the black Toyota Tundra? Could you move it please?” It happens about once an hour.

Sometimes it’s not an employee or even someone who has business at the newspaper looking to have a car moved. Sometimes it’s a driver who has ignored the “parking for Times vehicles only” signs, taking a chance on the threat of a tow, and then his or her vehicle is blocked in. On one recent morning, a woman was rather indignant about her car being obstructed and how it delayed her departure — all the while ignoring that she had parked on private property while she dined at a nearby restaurant.

How serious is the parking problem all over the Island? There’s a Facebook page called “Bad Parking on MV” that points out some of the peculiar places people choose to leave their cars. It never seems to run out of material for fresh posts, particularly during the summer.

Meanwhile, less than a quarter of a mile away from our office in Vineyard Haven, there’s a parking lot that sits mostly — agonizingly — vacant. And it’s owned by the town.

The few cars that are parked there have leased the spots for $2,000 per year, and there are a few others parked there illegally, hoping they won’t get caught as they do an errand somewhere nearby.

Known as the fire station lot because it was once the home of the Tisbury Fire Department, the valuable real estate is an eyesore and a waste. We’re happy to see the Tisbury board of selectmen, prodded by newly elected board member Jeff Kristal, looking to create public parking at that site. While he was a member of the finance committee, Kristal suggested selling the site. Estimates at that time were that the lot alone could fetch anywhere from $800,000 to $1.5 million. And with a building on it, the town could count on more than $10,000 per year in property taxes.

Selectmen have created a five-member task force to look at the possibilities for paid parking at the site and to bring back a recommendation to the board. The task force is being given a tight window to return with those recommendations, which we also support. Too many things are put out to study and never seem to come back. We’re happy to see this has a specific deadline of Sept. 30.

When the issue came up more than two years ago, then-selectman Tristan Israel was adamantly opposed to turning the parking lot into a paid lot that would provide much-needed parking for Vineyard Haven shops and restaurants. He said it would exacerbate traffic problems in and around Five Corners, with drivers pulling in and out of the parking lot looking for spaces.

So, the town took a different tack. It raised the price for an annual lease from $1,200 to $2,000. The town received slightly more revenue, but fewer lease holders renewed, and the parking lot is mostly empty — a blight on the landscape, and a head-scratching waste of parking spaces in a town that needs as much parking as it can get.

We’re talking about fewer than 30 spots at the fire station lot, but those are 30 more spots than we have now in Vineyard Haven. The town will generate a little more revenue, hopefully putting some of it back into the lot to dress it up, make some improvements. Planting a flower or two wouldn’t hurt.

But while a public parking lot appears to be a good short-term solution once the task force comes up with a plan on how to collect the parking fees, selectmen should set their sights much higher, on what to do with the lot in the long term.

A serious, professional planning effort would broaden our vision for downtown by considering a much more interesting set of possibilities than just a few parking spaces, however useful. Could the lot add vitally needed commercial or mixed-use development? Could it provide for a proper visitors’ center, an idea that generated interest at a recent town meeting but then mysteriously disappeared? Could it connect to parking made available by swapping a slice of Veterans Memorial Park for proper ball fields on town-owned land in a less strategic spot? Imagine the possibilities if a proper public discussion process and a proper professional master-planning process were carried out over the next several months.