Parking garage stalled by financial constraints

In their first meeting of the new year, the new City Council made their first big move – quashing, for now, plans for a downtown parking garage.

“Considering the financial position of the city,” said Council Chair Bill Knobloch, “it’s just not feasible.”

Councilors voted unanimously to terminate a study to determine whether a garage should be built near City Hall, just south of the farmer’s market. The study was commissioned by the council last March, and the consultants and downtown property owners conducting it have twice met with councilors to show their progress.

Multiple options were on the table, but the study team favored a public-private partnership between private property owners and the city. Cost estimates weren’t yet solid, but projected a range between $12.5 million and $18 million depending on size and the extent to which the city participated in the project. The study team said a multi-level garage should hold between 327 and 588 spaces.

City Finance Director Elray Konkel said the city has spent about $85,000 on the study thus far; the total contract was for $127,500.

Councilors said they wanted to keep the work on file for future planning, should the city decide to take up the plan again. City Attorney Paul McMurray said those working on the study are contractually obligated to provide a summary of the work completed to this point.

Talk of a downtown parking garage has been recurrent for years. In addition to concerns about the size and character of such a structure, many have said building one would be too expensive.

Cost was the issue most concerning to councilors still wrestling with the city’s capital plan Wednesday. Even Mayor Darlene Kordonowy, who has in the past expressed support for a garage, conceded that the timing isn’t good.

“This is not the right time to go forward with a parking garage,” she said, saying that the need to abandon the plan has been “clear for a couple of months.”

Still, leaders said, the parking problem isn’t going away. While some in the community don’t see a problem, others are worried that the parking pinch will eventually force anchor tenants – most notably Town & County – to consider leaving downtown.

Planners and many business owners have said that any visible abundance of on-street spaces now is due to the tacit willingness of T & C and the Virginia Mason Winslow Clinic to accept overflow in their lots, but that a growing population downtown could change that.

Clinic owner Tom Haggar and other private participants spent $50,000 on the study; he agrees it’s not the time to move ahead with a garage, but said he hopes discussions will eventually be revived.

“Nobody has to spend any money to talk,” he said. “There’s no question based on the work done that the future look, feel and vitality of Winslow will be strongly affected by the parking solution.”

Garage or not, parking changes are afoot downtown, though not immediately.

Councilors in October voted to delay by one year changes to the city’s parking code. The council in 2006 voted to reduce commercial parking requirements in portions of downtown from four to two spaces per 1,000 square feet of building space. The changes were slated to take effect last fall, but councilors decided that the rest of the city’s parking plan wasn’t ready.

Given that, the need to prepare for displaced parking as a result of the Winslow Way Streetscape project in 2009, and parking concerns in general, the council on Wednesday voted to send the discussion to the Land Use Committee. The committee will look for a range of solutions to parking capacity, access and management issues.

“The last thing I think any of us want to do on the council is leave the business community or any part of the community with the impression that we’re just about terminating money for a parking garage, that we don’t consider it to be a serious issue,” City Councilman Barry Peters said.

No comments were made about the Pledge of Allegiance, which was the subject of a long-running dispute among the old council. Back then, some wanted to say it, others didn’t. Just as contentious was the vehicle for debate – email correspondence between councilors – which led to criticism of how the council conducted business.

Such criticisms were absent from Wednesday’s meeting, as the new council said the Pledge and then found its footing.

Councilors expressed a commitment to hold regular committee meetings in 2008 to avoid some of the pitfalls that arose last year, when committees met sporadically.

Though Wednesday’s meeting ran long, community members, councilors and the mayor said they felt good about new council’s early interactions; as in the past, many stressed the importance of communication as the year progresses.

“I appreciate the tone and the tenor,” Kordonowy said, to close the meeting. “We’re off and running.”

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