A few scorching Saturdays ago, John Morgan managed the Hoboken Parking Utility’s (HPU) booth at the city’s Arts and Music Festival, watching closely as thousands of residents and visitors strolled up and down Washington Street. Even as Morgan, the city’s new Director of Transportation and Parking, was focused on answering residents’ questions about permits, safety, and fines, he was thinking to himself, “Where did all of these people park?”
“I was at a conference of parking directors recently, and the general feeling was that when your municipality’s parking spaces are at 85 percent capacity, you need to start looking for more parking,” he said this week, with some humor. “Well, I told them, I’m at about 110 percent.”
The comment brought confused looks from around the room, said Morgan. Clearly, no one there had ever been to Hoboken.
“So I said, ‘We’ve got a lot of double-parking.”
Morgan’s good-natured attitude may come in handy in Hoboken. Parking has always been a sore subject in the Mile Square City, something everyone loves to complain about but that nobody seems to have an idea how to fix. As mayors have come and gone, the various policies they’ve enacted to curb the difficulties have only made the law seem more convoluted.
“This is Hoboken. You don’t want to bring someone without some experience in here.” – John Morgan
Maybe the job is cursed. If so, now it’s Morgan’s curse, and strangely enough, he says he couldn’t be more excited.
“There’s a lot more that goes into parking infrastructure these days than just figuring out where we can put more spaces,” he said. “And it’s not just enforcement. We want it to be about customer service.”
The man for the job?
Morgan was appointed in February, four months after Sacs and his family moved to Europe. Before his appointment, he worked for Metric Parking, the company that manufactured Hoboken’s new muni-meters. His experience with municipal parking has stretched nearly the entire state of New Jersey, from Cape May to Bergen County.
“You’ve seen ‘Parking Wars’?” he asked proudly, referring to the popular television show about the hostile world of parking enforcement in Philadelphia. “That was my account when I was with Metric.”
For the past 12 years, he has served – and is still serving part-time – as the parking director in Westfield, which has a main street similar to Hoboken’s Washington Street. In addition to trying to convince local shoppers to visit downtown Westfield rather than the nearby malls, he was also faced with the arrival of over 3,000 daily commuters at the town’s NJ Transit station. While not Hoboken, it wasn’t an amateur-hour situation.
Zimmer was introduced to Morgan by Sacs, who was collaborating with Morgan on improving Hoboken’s municipal garages while Morgan still worked at Metric and in Westfield. Impressed with the diversity of municipalities he handled, Zimmer offered him the job.
Some city council members questioned whether Zimmer had done her due diligence before hiring someone who had had previous dealings with the city, but the mayor defended her decision.
“I think his experience [with Metric] is one of the main reasons he’s an excellent choice to fill this position,” she said in an interview this past week. “It’s one of the reasons we’re able to get some things going as soon as possible, because he’s so familiar with the equipment.”
Morgan, an old hand at parking infrastructure, reinforced Zimmer’s confidence with his own.
“It’s Hoboken,” he said. “You don’t want to bring someone without some experience in here.”
Old problems, new solutions?
Zimmer’s gamble that Morgan’s preexisting knowledge of Hoboken’s muni-meters would come in handy seems to already be paying off, as he’s already taken steps to customize them in ways that make them more accessible for residents and visitors. Of the 165 muni-meters in town, 25 have been fitted with new bill collectors and SmartCard readers, in case users only have bills instead of coins.
The SmartCard program, which is currently in its testing phase, allows residents to keep a set amount of money on their card, which can be refilled at any muni-meter station.
“Basically you have to come to City Hall once [to get the cards], and never worry about it again,” said Morgan.
But what about confusing signage, another longstanding issue in town?
In 2011, a Fox News investigative report exposed faults in some of the signs, mainly those on Hoboken’s parking spots that say “Permit parking only, all others four hours.” They lead people to believe they can remain in a spot for four hours without a permit, and then shift to a different spot. But now that the HPU uses computers and increased enforcement, they have logged people’s license plate number while they were parked at one spot and ticketed them if they were in another location after four hours. Many did not realize the four-hour limit is citywide.
And even if one realizes this, there are problems. For the 2011 report, the FOX crew parked its van, got scanned by a HPU worker, then headed off to Edgewater to do some shopping. When they returned and parked later, they were ticketed almost immediately.
At the time the report aired, Zimmer said the town would look at making the signs clearer.
While the signs have not been changed city-wide yet, Morgan and his team have started a new trial program in certain metered spots around town. In those spaces, the signs have been changed to allow those without permits to park as long as they’d like, as long as they continue to refill the meter. Morgan said that these meters could be placed elsewhere to alleviate the problem. And Zimmer said that based on the results of the trial programs, the four-hour limit could be eliminated altogether.
“I think the big thing is that we want to prevent people from parking their cars and just going into the city for the day, which happens in other Hudson County municipalities,” said Morgan.
Zimmer and Morgan spoke briefly about the effect of Hoboken’s parking conundrums on local commerce, an issue that was thrust into the limelight last week when local rock club Maxwell’s announced it would close in part due to parking (see cover story).
“Obviously local businesses are a part of quality of life here, and part of maintaining that is making sure people know where to park,” said Zimmer.
The mayor said that she is working with various local business owners on improving the parking issues, and has met several times with the Chamber of Commerce to discuss partnerships that would alleviate the problems.
Morgan said that he thought a partnership between the city and the Chamber would be productive, and that the main goal should be advertising that while Hoboken is certainly known for its parking issues, those issues are being addressed.
Zimmer placed blame on developments for some of the parking issues, especially uptown, where residential development replaced public parking opportunities. She mentioned the recent demolition of the private Park on Park garage, which is being replaced by a luxury high rise.
“I didn’t approve a lot of these developments, so I can’t take the blame for their effect on parking,” she said. “But they are certainly part of the problem.”
Zimmer said that she hopes to build new parking, perhaps a garage on a 1-acre piece of land in northwestern Hoboken that the city acquired in a successful lawsuit last month. The property, on Eleventh Street between Monroe Street and Madison Street, could replace the Park on Park garage that was torn down earlier this year.
The city is also looking into ways to make it easier to find existing spots. According to Morgan, the parking utility is working with computer engineering students at Stevens Institute of Technology on an app that might help residents find open spaces, though the study is in its earliest stages.
Willing to play the villain?
Morgan’s eagerness to take on the city’s greatest challenge, parking, and its most undesirable job, dealing with residents who feel that they’ve been unjustly ticketed or booted, is perhaps strange, but he says it’s just a matter of attitude.
“Sometimes this can be viewed as a very villainous job, and I understand that because no one wants to be ticketed,” he said. “But I’m viewing this as customer service. I am here to help residents comply with our regulations.”
At his booth at the Arts and Music Festival, Morgan took down the names and contact information of 12 different residents, each who thought they could make a good case against a ticket or boot. Since then, he’s gotten back to each of them, and in some cases found that they were right.
“We’re not perfect,” he said. “Any parking utility is going to make mistakes. I’m willing to give you the benefit of the doubt and give you my word that I’ll look into it.”
Dean DeChiaro may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org