GRAND RAPIDS — Citing high occupancy in the city’s parking facilities and a long waitlist for monthly parking passes, Grand Rapids is considering plans to build two new parking decks to expand options for downtown workers.
Staffers currently are weighing options to expand the existing Fulton-Ottawa parking ramp onto an adjacent surface lot, as well as construct a new ramp near the Grand Rapids Public Library. The city could bid the projects in its next fiscal year, which begins July 1.
“We’re at 95 percent or more occupancy, depending on the facility, and we have a really deep waitlist for monthly parking,” said Josh Naramore, director of Mobile GR and parking services for the city. “We also have a growing demand for special event programming with all the planned activities, particularly in the arena area because there’s so much development that’s happened there.”
The Fulton-Ottawa expansion would convert an 18-space surface lot into a five-level parking deck with 165 spaces, according to preliminary design plans. Naramore said the city soon hopes to issue a request for proposals for interested developers for the project, which is further along than the library parking ramp.
Initial concepts for converting the 100-space surface lot at 111 Library St. require additional discussion with the library’s board and the public, Naramore said.
As well, the city does not build standalone parking, meaning it would need to look for a private developer to take on the projects, he added.
Some private developers also are taking on their own parking projects. Studio Park on Ionia Avenue will feature 933 covered parking spots, with some available for use by people who are not tenants of the development. The project is being built on a former surface parking lot that had 580 spaces.
Since each of the proposed parking ramps could cost more than $12 million, the issue of funding the additional inventory has become a key consideration for the city. As such, Grand Rapids is trying to balance the current demand for parking with the future needs, particularly amid a shift in attitudes toward public transportation and the ongoing costs of developing parking structures, sources told MiBiz.
“If you’re building a parking structure, you’re probably going to bond for it for 20 or 30 years,” said First Ward Commissioner Jon O’Connor. “That means you have a long payback in order to satisfy the debt obligations for those structures, which may not be viable in 20 or 30 years.
“We’re in this awkward phase where we’re trying to figure out where best to make investments in the short term that will hopefully be productive in the long term.”
An annual statistical analysis of parking construction costs by Palm Beach, Fla.-based Wantman Group Inc. showed the cost for new parking structures has increased by 5 percent from March 2018, to $21,500 per space. The firm also predicts that spending on mixed-use or standalone parking nationally will grow by 4.8 percent during 2019.
Despite the early shifts in attitudes toward more efficient ways to commute, Naramore acknowledges that 93 percent to 97 percent of people who work downtown drive into the city alone.
“We have to still focus on meeting the needs of customers and residents in the near term, but planning for more changes in the future,” Naramore said. “We’re trying to make sure that when we do make investments, they’re smart and can be reused, or they have other uses associated with them.”
That’s why plans for the Fulton-Ottawa ramp expansion call for flat floors that could allow it to be redeveloped for potential office space in the future. The city also is exploring ways to activate the ground floor of the site with a commercial use.
Previously, the city invested in a surface parking lot in 2017 near the Downtown Market in response to concerns about parking. Described as a “short-term investment,” the site easily could be transformed if “the market deems it a good place for investment” at a lower cost than a parking ramp, O’Connor said.
From an employer’s perspective, investment in the Fulton-Ottawa ramp is a smart idea, said Josh Lunger, senior director of government affairs at the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce. He said the city manages visitor parking “extremely well,” but Chamber members remain concerned about where their downtown employees will park.
Businesses downtown manage employee parking in myriad ways, considering it a benefit to employees to provide a key card or other means of accessing nearby parking. Others, including Spectrum Health, have instituted so-called “parking cash out” strategies that give employees the ability to opt into a program in which they receive a stipend and determine their own method of commuting.
In August 2018, the city also expanded service for the free downtown area shuttle (DASH) service with weekend and late night rides for the North and West routes. Officials made changes to the DASH routes to make it more attractive for people to use, including for stops at parking lots outside of the core downtown business district.
Since expanding the service, DASH North ridership increased by 246 percent or 95,323 boardings compared to 2018. Ridership on the DASH West route also increased slightly.
Even so, businesses considering a downtown location often cite concerns over the availability of parking, Lunger said.
“We still think there’s a lot of great reasons to be downtown,” he said. “We’re focused on partnering with the city and other stakeholders — parking has got to be a key part of that. We’re also pleased that we’re strengthening DASH service, which provides access to cheaper lots on the outskirts of downtown, and that’s an important part of the situation as well.”
Package of solutions
Citing the adjustments to the DASH schedules and routes, O’Connor said the city actively is working to improve the quality and consistency of alternative transit options.
To that end, Grand Rapids — one of six municipalities that participates in the Interurban Transit Authority — is partnering with the Downtown Development Authority and The Rapid to invest more in bus stop infrastructure.
The groups looked at which stops are the most used and will make a $1.5 million investment into shelters and benches at those locations. It’s a project aimed at making the ridership experience more attractive and accessible to people.
“Parking is not the only solution,” O’Connor said. “It’s part of a package of how we move people through Grand Rapids.”