GRAND RAPIDS — Facing a future in which the role of the traditional automobile is changing, officials in Grand Rapids continue to evaluate long-term mobility investments, particularly when it comes to parking.
As the core of downtown and its adjacent neighborhoods take shape with a wave of new development — particularly on former surface parking lots — Grand Rapids’ once extensive parking supply has shrunk in recent months, according to information from Grand Rapids Parking Services.
As this report went to press, Grand Rapids Parking Services — now branded as Mobile GR — listed just over 150 available monthly parking spaces in its system, all in surface parking lots several blocks west of the Grand River, but located along a newly rerouted free shuttle system.
Grand Rapids planners and city officials acknowledge recent concerns about a parking crunch, but they insist on taking a more holistic approach to transportation and mobility to fully address growing demand for office, residential and retail space in the downtown business district.
“More parking will come online. It’s expensive, it takes time to build, and there’s an emerging question about whose responsibility it is to build it,” said Andy Guy, chief outcomes officer at Downtown Grand Rapids Inc., the nonprofit organization that manages the city’s Downtown Development Authority. “But our message is about how can we work with (users) to understand what (their) needs really are and what are the variety of solutions that we can throw at that.
“It might not be a single-bullet parking approach.”
Guy noted that every project in the downtown development pipeline currently contains some sort of parking component, either publicly or privately funded.
However, with initiatives to roll out enhanced mass transit systems, the advent of new technologies like Uber and Lyft and new considerations to establish a bikesharing program in the city, planners say there’s more opportunity than ever to get commuters out of their cars.
Josh Naramore, manager of Mobile GR, said the city’s goal is to reduce single-occupancy vehicle use in the downtown area by 10 percent in the coming years. He believes that effort begins with a younger generation that’s often perceived as less likely to want to own a car.
“I think we’re trying to start at the population that can change and that is willing to change,” Naramore said, adding that it can’t just be the responsibility of the public sector to build and maintain parking. “The market can really determine what they think they need in order to lease square footage. … Historically, the city had been relied upon to provide the missing piece for helping a development.”
The nature of how that generational change plays out remains unclear, but sources say it largely involves presenting a variety of convenient transportation options, including more mass transit, ride-hailing services and increasing walkability.
“There are people that want those choices as well,” Guy said. “I think the perspective these days is recognizing that the automobile plays a big role in the urban environment, but also planning for a future where people want more options.”
Many cities around the country have started discussing how best to invest in parking and transportation infrastructure.
At a January panel discussion in Detroit in conjunction with the North American International Auto Show (NAIAS), the mayors of Detroit, Chicago, Columbus and Atlanta all largely agreed the rise of autonomous vehicles is more a question of “when” than “if,” leaving them to ponder the wisdom of investing in costly parking structures.
“Think about the magnitude of the planning decisions you’re talking about,” said Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan.
With Detroit’s existing downtown office and residential space mostly filled up, developers likely will unveil new development projects in the coming months, Duggan said, adding that the city needs to decide how to invest in parking and other mobility options.
“If self-driving cars are really close, it may be that people aren’t going to drive a car and store it for eight hours in a structure,” Duggan said. “If a parking structure has a 50-year life expectancy, do we build huge numbers of parking structures for all these offices and apartments, or do we build smaller structures? Data will drive these discussions. But we’re having discussions in our planning department that we never, in our lifetime, thought we’d be having.”
Sources say the current estimate to build and maintain a new parking structure comes out to about $30,000 per space.
Smaller West Michigan cities also continue to recognize the need to broaden transportation and mobility options. In mid January, planners in Southwest Michigan unveiled plans for the Kalamazoo Area Transportation Study (KATS), aimed at bolstering facilities for walking and biking that link to the region’s mass transit system, according to a statement.
As municipalities seek to implement their mobility initiatives, many have to put tools in place to get commuters to use them, according to sources. In general, they appear to find it more successful to dangle a carrot than to wield a stick when it comes to driving behavioral change.
In downtown Grand Rapids, for example, DGRI and Mobile GR have debuted or are in the process of rolling out multiple initiatives that include free transit and shuttles. They’re also exploring how to encourage carpooling and bike-sharing services in the city.
The GR Forward downtown master planning process spearheaded by DGRI and adopted in 2016 by the Grand Rapids City Commission specifically called for the city to support a bike-share initiative, Guy said.
In the coming months, Chicago-based consulting firm Sam Schwartz Engineering will begin identifying possible station placements for the proposed bike-share program. As part of the $100,000 study, consultants will seek to identify project partners and develop a business plan for the services, according to Guy.
In recent months, the city’s free Downtown Area Shuttle (DASH) has been rerouted and condensed from four lines to two to allow for more frequent service. The lines largely connect the downtown to various surface parking lots in all directions outside of the core business district, as well as to major attractions like Founders Brewing Co.
Additionally, The Rapid’s bus rapid transit route known as the Silver Line has a no-fare zone throughout its seven downtown stops connecting the transit system’s Central Station on Grandville Avenue with the cluster of medical facilities on Michigan Street to the north. Ultimately, Naramore says all the initiatives are about providing as many options as possible to the broadening group of stakeholders who work, live or come to downtown for entertainment.
“We need to do a better job of understanding the needs of the employees downtown,” Naramore said. “But we also have a growing residential population downtown and their needs are completely different than the daytime workforce.”
Parking and mobility demands even differ greatly among various segments of the workforce.
To that end, employers have started establishing their own initiatives aimed at reducing commuters’ dependency on parking.
As MiBiz first reported in 2015, Spectrum Health moved 500 employees from its I.T. department to a downtown building with no attached parking, opting instead to use a parking cash-out program. Through the program, employees can opt in and park at city-owned parking facilities at a reduced rate, albeit at their own expense. Or, they can opt out, receive an equivalent payment from Spectrum Health and commute to work however they choose.
In prior interviews, Spectrum Health executives have described the program as a success so far.
Still, some business leaders have expressed worry over the current state of parking in downtown Grand Rapids.
A survey released this month by the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce showed that 18 percent of members had concerns about parking in the downtown core. But while the issue was on members’ minds, they described talent attraction and retention, federal regulations, and diversity and inclusion as greater concerns.
“The growth of our city is creating new pressures on the movement of goods and people, including the availability of parking, particularly for employees,” Josh Lunger, director of government affairs for the Grand Rapids Chamber, said in a statement. “The Chamber will be working with our members, the City of Grand Rapids and other stakeholders to ensure there is robust engagement with the business community as we plan for the future of our core city.”
Additionally, in recent months, multiple commercial brokers who focus on downtown real estate have cited the lack of parking as the reason potential deals failed to materialize.
Still, DGRI’s Guy remains unfazed, saying the city needs to think holistically rather than lock up precious resources in expensive parking facilities.
“(None of these alternative options) are for everybody,” Guy said. “But I think the important point to note here is we can provide choices that certain segments of the population will take up. That in and of itself frees up parking spaces that people who choose to drive can use.”
That urban planners in historically auto-dependent cities are looking beyond the automobile comes as no surprise to a large chunk of the automotive industry, where many executives have long talked about a future where demand for their product could dwindle.
That paradigm shift was on full display at the annual Detroit auto show this month.
During a press conference at NAIAS, Ford Motor Co. Executive Chairman Bill Ford said mobility concerns take on a global scale, adding that the lack of mobility has far-reaching and negative consequences if not immediately addressed.
“This is an issue that goes far beyond congestion,” Ford said. “It’s one that represents a massive challenge to mankind, one that affects our well-being, access to health care, clean drinking water, a safe place to live and even the ability to find work.
“To me, this has gone far beyond an inconvenience. It’s affecting humanity and society.”
That’s a message that resonates with Guy at DGRI.
“I think one of this city’s greatest assets is its accessibility. You can get in and out — compared to Chicago and other places — and it’s pretty easy to navigate,” Guy said. “I think we should protect that strength and that advantage at all costs. The number one way we start to diminish that advantage is by building more and more parking and forcing more people into a driving scenario.”