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City to pay for parking futility

It sounded good at the time.

A few spaces short of meeting the city’s parking requirements on site, developers of “the Winslow” would instead cut a check and move their project forward.

The money would go into a pot that would eventually be used to build the needed spaces elsewhere, most likely in a downtown parking garage.

There’s just one problem.

More than five years later, the city has no garage and no parking solution.

Now the Winslow – at the northeast corner of Ericksen Avenue and Winslow Way – is due its money back, plus $16,600 in interest.

For city leaders, it’s a doubly frustrating situation.

Parking spaces to serve the Winslow were never built, and the city will lose money that could have gone toward a pressing need.

“The law is on their side,” said Council Chair Bill Knobloch. “But this is very painful.”

City Councilors tonight are expected to approve the reimbursement of nearly $92,000 in unused funds to developers, who paid the city $75,250 in fall 2002.

City Finance Director Elray Konkel said that since the money – accepted under the city’s fee-in-lieu program – is essentially an impact fee, state law requires it be returned if it isn’t used within five years.

The fee-in-lieu program was designed to provide options to developers who are unable to meet code on site, as happened at the Winslow.

Finished in 2003, the multi-story mixed use development is home to condos, office space, retail and a parking garage that is a handful short of the required number of spaces. To compensate for the shortfall, money was paid to the city with the expectation that plans to create more parking downtown would soon solidify.

The need for more parking in Winslow has been continually stressed by planners and downtown property owners – particularly Tom Haggar, owner of the Virginia Mason Winslow Clinic, and Larry Nakata, president of Town & Country.

Those two businesses own a hefty chunk of the available downtown spaces, and have tacitly accepted overflow into their lots for years. Each have talked about expansions of their facilities that could eliminate at least some of those spaces.

The city in 2006 reduced its parking requirements from four spaces per 1,000 square feet to two spaces per 1,000 square feet. The change was set to take effect last fall – on the presumption that a more comprehensive solution would be in place – but was delayed until later this year due to a lack of progress.

Other measures, like metered parking or downtown shuttles that would reduce the need for more spaces, have been discussed, but haven’t taken hold.

Meanwhile, preliminary plans for a garage took shape, but never materialized. The city last year paid $85,000 for a study – conducted jointly by consultants and downtown property owners – to build a garage on the city’s existing gravel lot, south of the Farmers Market.

The multi-level garage would have been built into the hillside and would have parked between 327 and 588 vehicles.

Cost estimates ranged between $12.5 million and $18 million, depending on the extent to which the city partnered with local businesses.

The plan was shelved indefinitely by the council in January, due to budget constraints and strong opposition from some in the community.

Its demise signaled the likely need to return the money collected from the Winslow, Konkel said. Since being accepted, the funds have been held in reserve, so they won’t be returned at the expense of another project.

Because no other developments have paid the city in-lieu parking fees, there isn’t a danger of losing more money due to a lack of progress, at least not for now. Still, that doesn’t make the loss of the money any easier to swallow, nor does it mean future developments wouldn’t buy into the program should they fall short of requirements.

“If they do we’d need to have a plan,” Konkel said.

City Councilman Chris Snow, who also chairs the council Finance Committee, said it’s only fair to repay the Winslow. The sting of the doing so, he said, underscores the need to address the parking crunch.

“Some people don’t think there’s a problem,” he said. “But if Larry Nakata suddenly put yellow tape around his lot, they might see things differently.”

Snow hopes the repayment will at least help rekindle the debate.

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