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Erik Burgess, Published January 12 2014

More parking needed in downtown Fargo, but funding lacking

FARGO – What’s the old cliché: If you build it, they will come?

Well, they’ll be here soon, and they won’t have anywhere to park.

With a handful of major developments coming to fruition downtown, some Fargo officials say now is the time to ramp up public parking.

City Commissioner Mike Williams said he wants to see two new public parking ramps open downtown in the next two years.

Planning Director Jim Gilmour said his goal is to have three 400-car public ramps open in the “relative short term,” but finding the roughly $8 million to pay for each ramp will be the biggest hurdle as the city eyes other multimillion-dollar projects.

Six of the 11 public parking lots or ramps downtown are over 100 percent capacity, which means some spots are being rented to more than one car. Two of the ramps are 90 percent full or greater.

The city’s lot near U.S. Bank, which used to be a parking ramp until structural issues forced it to close, is 113 percent full, with 59 rentals of 40 spots and a long waiting list, Gilmour said.

“I could rent out 150 spots there if I had them,” he said.

The squeeze is expected to get worse as more developments are finished downtown, Gilmour said.

Mayor Dennis Walaker said the city needs to move forward with caution before it spends a ton of money. Parking ramps cost about $20,000 per spot.

“One at a time,” Walaker said of Williams’ goal of two new ramps. “Parking ramps are so expensive. … What Mike has to understand is, where does that money come from?”

Long-term spots a need

The largest public parking lot downtown is the Civic Center’s. It has 450 spots, of which 119 are rented out, but the city’s development plans could eliminate about 300 of those spots starting at the end of this year.

Construction of the new City Hall, which could start late this summer, will eliminate about 150 spots, and another 150 will go when the permanent floodwall on Second Street is built, Gilmour said.

“I’ve got to call some people this month and give them the bad news that they’re going to lose their parking spots in the fall, and they’re not going to ever get them back,” he said.

Gilmour said one new ramp is likely needed to replace those spots, another ramp to meet current demand and a third for future growth.

Walaker, though, said he is focused on the near future and replacing spots likely to be lost in the Civic Center lot.

“First, we need the City Hall, and then these other things can happen as money becomes available,” he said.

Gilmour and Williams stress there is a need for long-term parking downtown – where spots can be rented on a monthly basis.

There are about 2,000 public, off-street parking spots downtown, and about 4,000 private, off-street spots, according to a 2012 city parking study.

Gilmour said there’s no real shortage of short-term, on-street parking, except on Broadway. The city’s study showed that parking on Broadway is about 80 percent full at noon, its peak hour.

But the farther one gets away from Broadway, the less those streets are being used for parking. The same study showed that some off-Broadway streets had occupancy rates as low as 30 percent during peak hours. Some were in the upper 60s.

“If we build more facilities, it’s going to be more for monthly parking, not hourly, because the demand, the usage for hourly is quite small,” Gilmour said.

The city’s parking task force is looking at lengthening the 90-minute limit on parking in some areas downtown, but Gilmour said 90-minute zones will likely remain on Broadway, where businesses want quick turnover.

As the city weighs its options, Williams said he wants to keep encouraging private developers to think seriously about parking.

“We’re only half-developed, at best, downtown, so we’ve got a long way to go,” he said. “As we grow, we need to include structured parking in those new and retrofitted developments.”

Funding an issue

The city has tens of millions of dollars in upcoming projects: a $53 million downtown floodwall, a $15 million new City Hall and an $8.7 million public health office are perhaps the three biggest.

Because of the financial pressures of those projects, Gilmour said a solution for downtown parking can’t focus solely on construction and must also include getting increasing usage of the city bus service, MATBUS, and its park-and-ride system.

“Because I don’t think there’s enough money to build our way out of the shortage,” he said.

Even when more funds become available for a parking ramp, the next hurdle is finding space. Williams said the city has some land at Roberts Street and Second Avenue that could work.

Gilmour said it’s unfortunate the city has land that is not necessarily where a ramp is most needed.

Mike Hahn, CEO of the Downtown Community Partnership, said he’d like to see more “hybrid facilities” that offer hourly parking on the first floor and monthly rentals on the upper floors.

That’s the kind of facility the city had in the Island Park ramp, where there were 23 metered spaces on the first floor and monthly rentals above. The meters hardly made any money, so last year the city tore them out and started renting the spots on a monthly basis.

Hahn said the Island Park ramp probably isn’t in the best spot for hourly parking. He also said the city and downtown stakeholders need to do a better job advertising what parking is available.

“I would rather see us take some time to develop a master plan for downtown,” he said, rather than jump into building expensive parking ramps in the wrong spots.

As for the Island Park ramp, Williams pointed to it as proof that more parking is needed. While its occupancy lagged at 60 percent for some time, it’s now at 97 percent.

The Island Park ramp is also a good example of the kind of long-term financial commitment needed for parking ramps.

The $4.5 million ramp opened in January 2002, but it won’t be paid off until May 1, 2015, more than 13 years later, Gilmour said.

“Until (more long-term parking) is seen as a high enough priority for the City Commission, there simply isn’t money to do it,” he said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Erik Burgess at (701) 241-5518