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Parking Partnerships

February 7th, 2006 by dk

Downtown development always hits a speed bump when the issue turns to parking. Nothing surprises observers more than the cost estimates for parking structures — usually between $15,000 and $20,000 per space. Engaged citizens pay attention to downtown projects and the costs related to them, but the standard they use to judge what they learn is their own homes.

Putting an extra floor atop the library for future expansion added $5 million to the project, but that made sense, given the size of the building. But spending a similar amount for a parking garage? That seems crazy.

A parking garage needs no walls and no heat, no plumbing, no paint, no roof, no nothing. Regular people don’t spend more money on their garages than they do on their homes. So why must businesses? Parking structures are easy to dismiss as a boondoggle. Asking for help from the government looks like a handout.

But a public parking structure is in fact very unlike your garage. Your garage is for your car and not your neighbor’s. The cars inside your garage are not stacked on top of one another. And your garage doesn’t have people who don’t know one another walking around inside it.

The sheer weight of all the cars inside a full parking structure boggles the mind. But that load helps to explain that the structure itself must be sturdy enough to carry it, which requires a deeper and more complex foundation. Sight lines inside must be generous to help drivers and walkers navigate the same space safely. Ventilation systems must be fail-safe. Lighting must be adequate, but also protected and redundant for safety’s sake. Signs are required everywhere for first-timers. Finally, it’s nice if the structure isn’t too ugly.

Building parking garages is the most unsexy job there is in downtown development. Portland’s all-powerful Portland Development Commission is called on most often to finance the parking portion of a project. In a town our size, parking is a particular paradox. Land values are not so high that surface parking is unheard of, but surges in demand require more parking than all the nearby surface spaces can provide.

Until there is adequate parking, those times when people do come downtown and see a city that’s lively will remain self-limiting. Some people will stay home, for fear that they won’t find parking. As Yogi Berra said about a Manhattan restaurant: “Nobody goes there any more. It’s always too crowded.”

The interim solution is to partner up. The parking portion of the Broadway Place project required commitments from the residential developers and Symantec. The Overpark partnered with the Downtown Athletic Club. The Parcade has the county paying for jury duty parkers. Each structure can pay for itself over time, but guarantees like these make the financing easier.

The east end of downtown will need a parking structure, and soon. The federal courthouse, even with its $80 million budget, didn’t include public parking in its design. Now, as it happens, the Giustina family’s G Group has Whole Foods interested in building a store across the street, where IHOP is right now. The city has been asked to help the project by building a parking garage nearby, at a cost of $6 to $8 million.

The city of Eugene may be able to gather several partners to make the Whole Foods project fly. The Feds will pony up some money for parking and access to the courthouse. The developers of the Whole Foods store are chipping in architectural design, even though they have already designed customer parking into their building plans. Oregon Festival of American Music also wants to assist, hoping to swap parcels with the city for future expansion and ensuring parking for their evening patrons at The Shedd.

That’s a lot of help to fill a necessary but unattractive need. By building more parking than the area currently needs, city planners are inviting other developers to follow. The UO Bookstore bought land years ago just south of the courthouse. They have contemplated a department store for the emerging neighborhood. What Eugene gets in the long run is a gateway to the city, something we’ve not had since Ferry Street ended where the ferry docked.

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