The city is proceeding with plans to pay for a St. Armands Circle parking garage, but some officials are hesitant to make a 20-year commitment to paid parking.
If the city proceeds with plans to institute paid parking on St. Armands Circle, it won’t be a repeat of the saga that saw meters removed from downtown streets a year after they were installed.
That’s not because the new plan is foolproof. The city is exploring a paid parking program to pay for a $15 million parking garage project near the Circle. Under the proposed financing system, parking revenue would fund the vast majority of a 20-year bond that would ultimately cost $26 million to pay down.
As a result, the City Commission’s hands would be tied before paid parking even began. The city would commit to raising $1.4 million annually in parking revenue to pay for the 521-space garage. Commissioners would be unable to take any action that would prevent the city from raising that money, such as lowering rates or removing meters.
On Monday, the City Commission voted 4-1 to proceed with the proposed financing plan. Although that vote is not an irreversible endorsement of the project, Deputy City Attorney Michael Connolly made sure commissioners were aware of the road they were headed down.
“I’ve seen this room filled with people with bags on their heads,” Connolly said, referring to previous protests against paid parking. “This is a binding commitment. If someone is asking to bag the meters — not only are you unable to bag the meters, you might even have to raise the rates.”
If the proper metrics weren’t being hit, the city would have to take steps to increase revenue — such as increasing the price or adding more paid parking spaces — before dipping into other funds. Parking Manager Mark Lyons said preliminary revenue projections for the proposed paid parking system, which meet the necessary benchmarks, were conservative.
Still, he acknowledged the possibility changes would be needed.
“There’s lots of room within the structure that’s being recommended to improve our revenue projections, if necessary,” Lyons said.
Already, the price points have increased from the preliminary model Walker Parking Consultants used in its study of the Circle. The Walker report used a maximum rate of $1 per hour for premium spaces, and suggested not including surface lots in the paid parking scheme. On Monday, city staff recommended a model that would charge $1.50 per hour for premium spaces and include fees for off-street parking.
The Walker model included paid parking seven days a week, while the city’s initial proposal would largely restrict paid parking to Monday through Friday.
Marty Rappaport, co-chairman of the St. Armands Business Improvement District, said property owners in the area are ready to take the plunge on paid parking to secure the garage. He wasn’t worried about making a long-term commitment to meters, because he sees paid parking as an inevitable development.
“It’s not a question of if we’re going to put paid parking in,” Rappaport said. “I think we’re one of the very few cities of our size that don’t have paid parking.”
“It’s not a question of ‘if’ we’re going to put paid parking in.” — Marty Rappaport
Commissioner Shelli Freeland Eddie was wary of depending on paid parking without any hard evidence to prove it would be a sustainable revenue source. She asked staff to consider phasing in the meters to gauge resident feedback, though St. Armands stakeholders wanted to hold off on paid parking until the garage was complete.
During the next two months, the City Commission will consider more significant commitments to the proposed financing model.
“There’s always a risk of knowing whether those projections will come in,” Lyons said. “We used an extremely good company that has been doing this type of projection for 50, 60 years in all markets around the world. I felt very comfortable with the information they provided us.”
This article has been updated to clarify details in the pricing model used in Walker Parking Consultants' study of paid parking on St. Armands Circle.
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