Third Coast Gets Third Try

April 20, 2007
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GRAND RAPIDS — Third Coast Development Partners doesn't anticipate commissioners will completely reject its offer to purchase two-thirds of the city's downtown public parking system when they meet to discuss the proposal for the third time tomorrow.

But at the same time, ThirdCoast doesn't believe commissioners will agree to the 45 days of exclusive negotiations it requested last month, either, after Tuesday's meeting.

"I could be wrong, but I don't think the city is going to reject it out-of-hand. I don't think that would be prudent," said David Levitt, a principal in ThirdCoast

"But I also don't think that they're going to encourage city staff to go out and spend $1 million and take two years to study it," he added.

Levitt and Brad Rosely formed a separate entity, Third Coast Public Infrastructure LLC, for the parking-buyout proposal they submitted late last month.

"They may request that the Parking Commission spend some time studying it. Or they may form a small study group made up of parking commissioners, city commissioners and others," said Levitt, who is representing the firm in the proposal.

Levitt said it could be a good thing for his firm if commissioners set aside 60 to 90 days to take a look at the offer, as the benefits of the proposal could become more apparent.

But he also said commissioners were under some pressure to open the bidding to anyone interested if they become serious about selling 14 of the 21 current properties in the system.

"My expectation is that is what they're going to do. We have been, frankly, advised by some of our advisors that is where the city is going to go," said Levitt.

Having the city request proposals is fine with Levitt, as long as the city comprehends what type of deal would be most appealing to buyers. Levitt said that type of deal could emerge from talks the city would have with him and Rosely.

"What we are suggesting is, go ahead and put it to open bid. But we think we understand better than the city what would make it attractive to a purchaser," he said. "Then go ahead and put that thing, whatever that agreement is, out there."

Levitt has attended about a half-dozen public meetings since his firm offered the city $35 million to $45 million for four ramps and 10 lots in the downtown system. Only two of the city's commissioners, Rick Tormala and James White, have said the sale would be a good way to feed needed revenue into the city's starving coffers.

The Downtown Development Authority isn't enthusiastic about selling its seven lots, but would reluctantly do so. The Parking Commission didn't pass judgment on the proposal, preferring to delay that decision until more information is available. The panel did offer to look into how privatizing the system would affect the city and downtown.

So how does ThirdCoast feel about the reaction it has received to its offer?

"It would have been ideal if the city had said, 'Oh my gosh, this is a great idea. Let's jump on it.' But it probably would have been fairly naïve of us to expect that, even under the best set of circumstances," said Levitt.

"So I guess I'm not totally surprised by the reaction. I'm a little disappointed that it seems so negative coming out of the box. But in a sense, it's a major change in policy and thinking, so it will probably take some time to process through that and think about the benefits."

But Levitt said some "themes" have emerged from the meetings about the ThirdCoast offer that haven't been fully understood. Levitt said the $15,000 the firm offered the city in return for entering into negotiations wasn't ever intended to cover the city's transaction costs, which City Manager Kurt Kimball said could approach $1 million by closing time.

Levitt said ThirdCoast offered the city the money to pay for staff time to get the data on the parking operations that both sides would need to negotiate a deal. The $15,000 figure is the amount the city wanted to charge Grand Rapids Development Corp. for having a consultant review the firm's sales proposal for the city-owned Public Works Island at 201 Market Avenue SW, had a legitimate offer surfaced from the RFP.

"What we wanted was some information from the Parking Services Department to help us understand the cost of operations better. That is what that (money) really was for. It was never intended to cover the waterfront on all costs that anybody might incur," said Levitt.

"We'd be willing to pay those at the appropriate time. I think running out right now and getting surveys, appraisals, legal opinions and all that is premature."

Levitt said ThirdCoast asked for exclusivity during negotiations because once the parking data was compiled, another firm might get it for free by filing a Freedom of Information request with the city.

"That is what the exclusivity was. And if they didn't want to give (the data) to us, that would be fine. They could put all the information that we requested on the Web, I don't really care."

Levitt also said that he and Rosely really just want to be in the parking business. He said it's been a bit frustrating to hear others say that they want to grab all the developable properties downtown.

"We're trying to do this because we want to be in the public parking business in Grand Rapids. It's no more sinister than that. And we are willing, as I pointed out to Kurt Kimball, to agree to certain restrictions and rules around what we can do," he said.

"But it's absurd to suggest that there is an ulterior (motive), because it's simply not true."

As part of its proposal, ThirdCoast has promised to keep parking-rate increases to the inflation figure each year, offer free night-time parking, and replace spaces if a lot is sold for development. The firm also said it would honor all existing parking and labor agreements if it enters into a deal with the city and is willing to look at a long-term lease instead of a sale.

The good news for ThirdCoast is Levitt said he has received only positive street feedback about the company's offer.

"(Our proposal) was never intended to solve all the problems the city has, economically and otherwise," said Levitt. "It was just an attempt to look at how the city does one thing and see if there is an alternative way that makes sense."    

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