Economic Development, Government, and Real Estate

Muskegon scrutinizes downtown parking

Currently, area has two spaces for every resident in 387 acres of core downtown.

July 20, 2018
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Muskegon Parking
Developers in downtown Muskegon are not required to supply parking for their projects. Planners say the core already has an overabundance of space for vehicles. Courtesy Fleis & VandenBrink Engineering

(As seen on WZZM TV 13) As downtown Muskegon continues to grow, city planners are working to ensure they strategically plan parking changes along with it.

Because of so much free space downtown that is only recently being developed, planners are able to cultivate their vision of how downtown parking and parking culture should look in the future.

Right now, downtown Muskegon has “too much parking,” said Jamie Pesch, a planner for the city of Muskegon.

In fact, downtown has about two spaces for every resident — more than 5,000 spaces — in the 387 acres of the core downtown. Comparatively, The Lakes Mall has more than 4,200 spaces on 100 acres of land.

There were a lot of building demolitions and parking built along with the former mall in downtown Muskegon in an effort to compete with the suburbs.

“We thought that, at the time, in order to compete with the suburbs, you had to be like the suburbs. Really, an urban area is the antithesis of those things,” Pesch said.

So, the city is working to sell the excess parking spaces for development.

At least 500 spaces in total recently have been sold to developers, including a portion of parking outside the L.C. Walker Arena.

“The build form of downtown should be built around people rather than cars,” he said.

“It’s really obvious when you’re in a place built for people,” he said. “Typically, you see more people in places built for people.”

He said many cities build out parking spaces to prepare for the “parking black Friday” — the day of the year the most people try to park downtown. But that leaves a lot of empty space throughout the rest of the year, and that’s not what Muskegon leaders want for their downtown.

“At that point, there’s no reason to go there,” he said.

“Having active usage is what brings people to a place. If you line all your streets with parking lots, even if they’re nicely screened with vegetation or nicely landscaped, it doesn’t really add up to anything because there’s nothing to do except park your car.”

Still, he hears comments about how there’s not enough parking downtown.

He thinks there is sometimes the perception of not enough parking that stems from suburban culture and the way people get used to seeing the front door of their destination from their space in an acres-large parking lot.

For example, he said there is a “constant concern” during the Muskegon Farmers Market, which draws 11,000 to 12,000 people each Saturday from May to November, of too little nearby parking.

Even though people may have to park only one block away, if they can’t see the market from their cars, it feels inconvenient.

“It is forever going to be a controversial issue,” he said.

As more developments are popping up downtown, Pesch said city planners have been keeping a close eye on the parking strategy adopted in 2015 and have been implementing rules that align with their vision.

That vision mainly includes ways of ensuring parking does not inhibit the atmosphere leaders would like to create downtown.

While some cities have regulations about installing a minimum number of spaces along with new developments, Muskegon is enforcing a maximum number of off-street parking spaces.

That’s a downtown maximum of one space per apartment and per hotel room. For retail, office and recreation facilities, that’s one space per 500 square feet of floor area. The civic maximum is one space per six people, and industrial is half a space per one employee at the busiest shift.

Developers aren’t required to install parking at all, though, Pesch said. Requiring developers to include parking, especially in dense cities where a structure may be needed, increases overall construction costs, which then drives up housing prices.

When parking is required, it’s often built in an unstructured way, he said, with too many lots and structures in between buildings. That impedes walkability and causes people to drive between buildings.

Pesch said planners want to make sure parking is installed only if needed, such as a new 89-space parking lot paved on the corner of W. Western Avenue and Jefferson Street to prepare for the future high-demand area.

The lot is meant to accommodate three developments, leaving 60 feet of undeveloped land on W. Western Avenue for a possible future project. The lot accommodates one space for each apartment in the recently finished 47-unit Highpoint Flats, as well as space for the Ameribank building development and space for a future development.

When a parking lot is built, the goal is to disguise it as much as possible, setting it back from the street and using the same materials as the principal building on the lot, requiring access from a side street when possible, he said.

Joshua Canale and Christopher Benedict, developers for Lake View Lofts, a new six-story building at 351 W. Western Ave. that includes 20 apartments, a restaurant and other commercial space, did not include parking spaces in their building plans.

Canale said paving a lot was not necessary.

Lake View Lofts has a short-term agreement with the Culinary Institute of Michigan to use parking spaces behind its building but is working to explore other options.

“The reality is people want to be close to where they’re going,” Canale said, adding that’s why many developers downtown are including parking even though they don’t have to.

Muskegon is in a unique situation in Canale’s experience because developers are able to better utilize space by sharing parking lots, rather than each development having its own.

Canale said as long as the city has parking plans for an eventual busy downtown — which it does, he added — he likes the approach being taken to create a downtown catered primarily to pedestrians.

As development builds up, parking will eventually get busier, but that’s why the city is working to mitigate those problems before they arise, Pesch said.

“If parking becomes a problem in the future, I think that would be a good thing,” Canale said, because it means more people are moving to the area.

Though the current parking climate currently does not support paid parking, the plan is to eventually charge for on- and off-street parking.

He said the city plans to eventually charge for parking in high-demand areas, using digital meters whose rates can be changed based on demand levels.

“If there was priced parking, and … the demand is high enough, they’ll pay to park,” Pesch said.

The idea is to encourage turnover and allow more people to visit, helping the city avoid building more parking lots.

“Oftentimes, that’s not actually the solution,” he said. “You build more parking and then you get more drivers.”

Pesch said Muskegon once had parking meters, but they were removed near the construction of the downtown mall, also to compete with suburbs.

He said the city will do what it can to make parking downtown possible, but as development continues, he said it will be important for people to be strategic about how they get downtown and where they park if they choose to drive.

“You could have a million people in a place and never be able to fit a million cars in the same place,” Pesch said. “It’s really about how you get people there in a smart way and how you build a place that can draw a million people to it in the first place.”

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