Our View

 

Our View

 

Date: October 8, 2009
by: The Observer Staff

 
 

“It’s like putting a pre-fab home on the waterfront,” says commercial real-estate broker Ian Black.
In other words, a horrible waste of valuable land.

That was Black’s assessment this week of the city of Sarasota’s infamous plans to erect an $8 million parking garage on Palm Avenue.

But, wait, there’s another idea on the table. Will the on-again, off-again City Commission change course again?

Black is now doing his job, which is to sell real estate for his clients. And he’s trying to sell the city on the idea of leasing 300 spaces in the M&I Bank parking garage, which sits between Palm and Pineapple Avenues on McAnsh Square. And he’s trying to persuade the City Commission to buy the bank property’s vacant lot at Palm and Ringling Boulevard.

Vice Mayor Kelly Kirschner likes the ideas, and for good reason. Both would be less expensive than building the garage. What’s more, Kirschner says, the public prefers surface parking over garage parking.

Actually, the public prefers convenience. And the M&I garage and lot would not be convenient. Maybe it would be for the merchants and restaurants on Palm Avenue south of Main Street and to a small extent for the restaurants near Main and Palm.

But altogether, this is another bad idea.

To begin with, Sarasota’s city government, which is to say Sarasota taxpayers, should not be in the business of owning and operating parking garages and parking lots. Face it: What historical track record shows that the city of Sarasota is proficient in the parking business? Nothing; it’s not.

And it never will be, because governments always do dumb things — such as subsidize one group at the expense of another. You can count on this: When the city completes the Palm Avenue parking garage and if it builds a surface parking lot at Ringling and Palm, both operations will be money losers and burdens on taxpayers. And one of the main reasons for that is politicians don’t have the stomach to operate such ventures at market prices. To do so would cost them votes. Another reason is bureaucracy. It’s a heretical trait that automatically afflicts every government.

Here’s another reason the city should not be in the parking and parking-garage business: Other municipal governments are getting out of the business. Chicago’s Mayor Richard Daley, for instance, this year privatized thousands of parking meters, leasing them for 75 years to a consortium of private investment groups for $1.15 billion. Daley also leased this year the city’s parking garages. The buyers of these leases now have an incentive to earn a profit on their investment. But to do that, they still must be competitive with private Chicago garages. Which also means all Chicago garages and motorists will be paying market rates for parking. And that’s as it should be. Parking is not free.

There’s another model to follow as well. It would be worthwhile for city commissioners to travel to Country Club Plaza, in Kansas City, Mo., to see how well parking is handled in one of the nation’s premier shopping districts. At street level in this 15-block, 55-acre setting are 150 retailers, all well within walking distance.
There’s little to no parking on the streets of the plaza. Parking is concealed in multi-level parking garages beneath, behind and on the roofs of the buildings — and they are not city owned. They are also convenient.

Sure, no one can advocate against the city saving money. And Vice Mayor Kirschner’s ideas for parking at the M&I Bank lot could do that. In the short term.

But the better route is to forego the M&I lot and the city’s Palm Avenue parking garage. If only the commissioners had the will and courage to turn over parking to the private sector.

 

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