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Sunday, 15 February 2015 22:00

Moving Beyond Parking: Downtown employers begin to embrace alternatives

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Bill Kirk, mobility manager of Downtown Grand Rapids Inc., opted to participate in the company’s parking cash-out program in which he passed up an assigned parking space in exchange for pocketing $149 per month to use as he chooses. Bill Kirk, mobility manager of Downtown Grand Rapids Inc., opted to participate in the company’s parking cash-out program in which he passed up an assigned parking space in exchange for pocketing $149 per month to use as he chooses. PHOTO: NICK MANES

When Bill Kirk signed on to work as mobility manager for Downtown Grand Rapids Inc., he had the option to use a company-supplied, assigned parking space.

But instead of signing up for a spot in the parking ramp located at Pearl Street and Ionia Avenue, the Heartside neighborhood resident opted to pocket an extra $149 a month in his paycheck and figure out a transportation plan that works best for him to travel the few blocks from his apartment to the DGRI offices.

Kirk is among the growing number of people benefiting from what’s known as a parking cash-out program that’s been gaining traction nationally and recently in Grand Rapids. For example, three out of DGRI’s 10 employees use the program.

For supporters, the program demonstrates that the availability of downtown parking is not always among the most important issues for people who work in the city’s core business district.

“I think that some employers, organizations and some individuals would say we have to have ample, convenient cheap parking all over downtown, otherwise nothing will work down here,” Kirk said. “There are others who say, ‘I’m not going to worry about building or accommodating parking because people want to be downtown.’”

Kirk’s notion of people now wanting to be downtown not only for work, but for living and entertainment options has many wondering how best to address supply and demand for parking in Grand Rapids’ central business district.

It’s a significant change from how parking has been traditionally been viewed by downtown visitors and workers, Kirk said.

“There are enough good things going on here where (people) are not making their choice about whether to be downtown based on whether they can park or how cheap it is,” Kirk said. “They are coming because it offers something different to the city. At the end of the day, people have strong opinions about (parking), but a lot of times, we are not working off hard data.”

DGRI executives believe the organization’s parking cash-out program is just one option employers could consider to help alleviate the demand for parking in the downtown area.

“We are beginning with this notion that people work someplace because it’s easier to park there,” said Kris Larson, president and CEO of DGRI. “The parking is a bit of a red herring in all of this. Quite frankly, it’s cultural — it’s not economical.”

Rather, Larson urges employers to give workers as many options as possible for how to get to work.

“Oftentimes, you have employers trying to solve all the problems for their employees,” he said.

SUPPLY AND DEMAND IMBALANCE?

Recent studies commissioned by the Grand Rapids City Commission have found that the supply of parking in the central business district does not necessarily match the demand for parking. Last fall, Philadelphia-based consulting group Interface Studio completed a study examining the downtown area’s parking utilization as part of GR Forward, the ongoing downtown master planning effort.

The consultants determined there are 18,591 parking spaces in the area, including city-owned lots, ramps and on-street parking, as well as privately-owned surface lots and parking decks.

However, the study found that those spaces were only 68 percent utilized.

Those findings come on the heels of a handful of new construction projects downtown that incorporate parking decks into the new buildings, adding to the parking capacity.

The utilization figure established by Interface, however, is just an average. There are areas of downtown that city officials believe are underserved for parking supply.

The growing Arena South area, for example, is one place where officials believe there is a demand for increased parking capacity, driven by the popularity of attractions such as Founders Brewing Co. and the future mixed-use Arena Place development, which is being built on the site of a former surface parking lot.

Arena Place will have its own built-in parking facilities, as will the Twelve Weston office building proposed for the corner of Weston Street and South Division Avenue.

The Grand Rapids Parking Commission has also considered building a 276-space surface lot on city-owned property along Market Street, as MiBiz previously reported. A sub-consultant for the city’s master planning effort, Chicago-based Sam Schwartz Engineering DPC, included a memo in the February agenda for the Grand Rapids Parking Commission meeting that encouraged the commission to back off its recommendation for the riverfront parking lot.

The group behind GR Forward views the site as a major asset for encouraging future projects along the river and believes that a surface lot could stall development.

Parking commission officials did not respond to calls for comment by the time this report went to press.  

The lot where Arena Place is being built formerly served as parking for a number of employees at Advantage Sales and Marketing on Grandville Avenue. Once that lot was sold for the development, Advantage announced that it would be moving its 300 employees to a suburban Cascade office, according to reports last fall.

The reason: Parking became too expensive.

“Certainly, you never like to see a business leave downtown,” Kirk said. “But there are some companies where it’s important for them to have close, cheap parking to their office. As downtown grows, surface parking in downtown is such valuable land. If it’s city-owned and it’s not generating any tax revenue, that’s an opportunity cost.”

CONSIDERING ALTERNATIVES

While DGRI and Grand Rapids Community Foundation are among the handful of known users of parking cash-out programs, other employers have also started to look closely at how to handle parking in the downtown area.

Spectrum Health, West Michigan’s largest employer, offers a variety of options for its approximately 8,500 employees working at its Michigan Street campus. Every employee working at one of its medical buildings on Michigan Street is given a parking assignment, said Spectrum spokesperson Timothy Hawkins. However, those parking spaces are not necessarily in immediate proximity to the actual campus.

The health care provider offers two off-site parking lots in the vicinity of Michigan Street and Plymouth Avenue, about two miles east of its Michigan Street campus. Spectrum runs its own shuttles, transporting more than 1,200 employees per day, Hawkins said. The organization also offers employees free passes on The Rapid, the regional bus service in the greater Grand Rapids area.

Likewise, the company also provides free shuttle service from two off-site lots at its Blodgett campus in East Grand Rapids.

Spectrum is in the early stages of rolling out carpooling software that would allow groups with three riders or more to get parking access right at the hospital’s main campus along Michigan Street.

As Spectrum continues to develop and implement these programs and experiment with biking infrastructure, the organization does not plan to build any significant employee parking infrastructure in the next five years.

“We are not planning for significant change in parking spaces at the medical center,” Rick Redetzke, vice president of facilities and real estate for Spectrum Health, said in an email to MiBiz. “Demand will vary based upon the success of our alternative transportation strategies and fluctuations in demand for medical services required to be located at the medical center.”

TRANSPORTATION’S ROLE

Spectrum Health is among the major institutions learning how to deal with parking — or the lack thereof — in a growing, urban environment where land is at a premium and it often has more valuable uses than serving as a parking lot, said Grand Rapids Planning Director Suzanne Schulz.

She also noted that Grand Valley State University has embarked on a “mode shift” in recent years. GVSU made a policy of encouraging students to use free bus service via The Rapid to travel between the Allendale campus and the downtown Pew Campus, a distance of just more than 10 miles.

The result is that GVSU has been able to build new buildings on a number of former surface parking lots. The university has not built a new surface parking lot on its Allendale campus in eight years, the university confirmed to MiBiz.

“(Parking and transportation options) are a worthwhile discussion,” Schulz said. “Giving additional choices opens up a lot of different opportunities.”

The university is also currently in the planning stages for the Laker Line, a bus rapid transit (BRT) system connecting the downtown and Allendale campuses, similar to the The Rapid’s new Silver Line that extends from downtown Grand Rapids to the south, as MiBiz previously reported.

These kinds of transportation discussions around development will continue to percolate as the city grows and transforms, said DGRI’s Kirk, who expects people’s attitudes toward parking and general mobility to go through a similar evolution.

“People figure this stuff out,” Kirk said. “When I rented my apartment (in downtown Grand Rapids), there was never any mention of where I was going to park. I just figured it out.”

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