Park This Debate Somewhere Else

May 8, 2007
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Parking. No other word so engages metro area residents. It is generally and widely believed that there is never enough, especially in regard to the city’s downtown. Perceived “parking issues” should be enough for residents to look favorably upon the Tuesday transportation millage renewal for a system that has linked the ’burbs to the city, and people to jobs.

Grand Rapids City Commissioner Rick Tormala brought to city leaders a proposal from a young development firm, Third Coast Partners, which wishes to purchase the city’s parking lots, privatizing the service and/or opening the possibility of developing the properties on which those lots sit. Most of those are prime territory, deliberately selected for lot proximity to specific venues like the arena or popular bar/restaurant avenues. While many of Tormala’s fellows on the commission — including the mayor — are not convinced that such a sale is a good idea, the commission continues to beg the time of dwindling numbers of city staff to “review” the proposal. The funds generated by such a sale certainly would assist the city through a major deficit, but would not solve the reasons for that deficit nor assist the city with its current parking problems — that being mostly ascribed to the perception of parking availability.

The issue does not deserve any further discussion, not by the city leaders or by the Parking Commission to which the city handed it off by April’s end.

The elder statesmen in the field of commercial development have decried the city system since the first shovel turned in the redevelopment of the downtown. It began with the parking lot born of the Calder Plaza/Old Kent Bank (now Fifth Third Bank) renovation. It has been argued that the city “double dipped” its taxpayers when it used taxpayer money to bond for and pay for the lots, then charged for parking. But the real roar in the business community has been in regard to the city’s “theft” of parking revenues for the general fund, a practice more than a decade old. That the city wants now to use parking commission revenue from fines, which currently nets at about $1 million each year, is of little surprise. Not wise, but no surprise. Parking lots in Michigan, especially areas in the direct path of lake effect weather, need plenty of repairs. Depleting one fund to pay another is ineffectual to say the least.

The city was determined to tear out an entire pedestrian mall, built only as long ago as the 1970s, to satisfy the business owners along Monroe Center. Those businesses pounded the city with customer perceptions that parking had to be visible from the store front, and that business owners were convinced metro residents would not shop or be entertained downtown if they could not have proximity in parking.

That this “discussion” of parking lot “privatization” continues to live is a surprise, especially given the fact that the best advice requested by and given to city commissioners in regard to any sale of parking lots has been an overwhelming “No.” Even prior to the city commission’s cowardly dodge in pushing the issue back onto the Parking Commission, it had heard the deliberate and well-stated words of the city’s prominent developers. Grubb & Ellis|Paramount Commerce principal Bill Bowling, whose tenure reaches back almost as far as Alexander Calder’s commission for a sculpture, told city leaders, “We believe the sale is a short-term solution with long-term negative effects. Since the proposal allows the purchasers of the lots to develop the land and only requires replacement of the parking, we are almost guaranteed a loss of well-located (central business district) parking.”

Enough said. 

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