Two Free Park Sites Closing Soon

December 29, 2003
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GRAND RAPIDS — Downtown will lose 610 parking spaces from two events occurring this week.

The City Centre ramp will close for good because of its structural condition, meaning 540 spaces will vanish. Half of the Monroe Center lot will also disappear forever, as demolition work for the new art museum will begin and eat up 70 spaces there.

Besides the timing of the closings, the ramp and lot have another thing in common. City commissioners tabbed both as sites for the city’s free parking program that they instituted two decades ago.

The Monroe Center 2 lot, now the site of the Monroe Center 2 ramp, was also part of the program that now offers an hour’s worth of parking from 8 a.m. until 6 p.m. weekdays, and many have taken advantage of that free offer.

Parking Services Director Pam Ritsema said the policy resulted in over 250,000 tickets being stamped with the words “no charge” during the past fiscal year, freebies that turned out to be worth about $400,000 in non-collected parking revenue.

So the question is, when the City Centre ramp closes and half of the Monroe Center lot is gone — the other half will be erased in April — where will the free-parking program go?

To the new Monroe Center 2 ramp, apparently.

Because the site is included in the program, the ramp inherits the designation. And a restaurant, set to open on its ground floor in June, has secured an hour of free parking for customers in its lease with the city.

“We’re leaving the status quo, which means 60 minutes of free parking in the Monroe Center 2 ramp,” said Jack Hoffman, chairman of the Parking Commission.

But the ramp didn’t offer free parking when it opened in September, and wasn’t doing so when Hoffman made his comment at a commission meeting on Dec 11.

Parking commissioners were also asked by Mayor John Logie not to make a final decision on the free-parking program at that meeting because the mayor had a scheduling conflict and couldn’t attend. Only a few comments were made about the policy before commissioners agreed to the mayor’s request.

As a result, a discussion of what to do with the policy, and a potential decision on it, was postponed until the January meeting when Logie, who leaves office this week but stays on the commission through next year, can attend.

Ellis Parking Co. President Michael Ellis, a past parking commissioner, took issue with the commission for not thoroughly discussing the program when it was on the agenda.

“There were a lot of different alternatives that came up during their last meeting that they were going to rehash at this meeting, but that got postponed until January at the mayor’s request,” said Ellis.

“I guess, in my mind, they made the decision to begin the program in Monroe Center 2 without having had that discussion,” he added. “To go ahead and implement it into that site without reaching a conclusion on the program, I thought, was a little premature.”

Commissioners heard in November that free parking is vital to a group of downtown businesses, and board members were faced with what to do with the program with the two sites offering it closing.

Should it be continued, expanded or eliminated? Should it be limited to retailers and restaurants? Or should it be replaced with a validation policy?

“I don’t think it should be expanded past this point,” said Commissioner John Edison, who made his final comments on the issue before his final term on the commission expired at the last meeting.

Due to the current budget crisis, Edison didn’t feel that the city should give up any more parking revenue than it already has. He said business owners should give their customers free parking through a validation program they would buy from the city.

Commissioner David Kammeraad agreed with Edison and said such a program would be easy for retailers to use. Kammeraad owns Preusser Jewelers at 125 Ottawa Ave. NW.

But what wasn’t discussed at any length was a review put together by Parking Services of how 18 cities handled free parking. It showed that only two offered an hour of free parking during the workweek. A few had lower rates for the first few hours and some offered free parking on Saturdays and Sundays.

Nor was much exposure given to a Parking Services report on the current validation policy. It showed that the Hong Kong Inn and the Amway Hotel Corp. were the biggest validators of free parking in the Monroe Center lot from March through November. Service businesses easily outnumbered retailers and restaurants on a list of the top 25 validators.

The report also revealed that 11 percent of 502 free parkers on Dec. 2 went shopping, 18 percent went to restaurants, and a wide variety accounted for the rest of those parkers on that day. Validations pays for 7 percent of all parking at Monroe Center; customers pay for 41 percent, while 52 percent of parking there is free of charge.

Another meaningful factor attached to the policy is revenue to Parking Services. Ritsema told commissioners that the income her department gets from meters, roughly $1 million a year, could end up going into the city’s general fund to help cut the deficit.

None of those dollars would come back to Parking Services, which had bond payments to make on a number of facilities.

“There is no link between the parking fund and the general fund,” said Ritsema.

If that change is made, meters would become the second revenue source Parking Services would not have. Receipts from the Government Center ramp, projected at $800,000 for the past fiscal year, also go into the general fund.

Parking Services doesn’t receive tax dollars. It does, however, get capital support from the Downtown Development Authority, which owns many of the parking lots downtown.           

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