Lengyl: $14 million garage’s purpose ‘not to make money’
By Dave Schwab
Though they admit it’s not perfect, on balance most would agree North Park is better off having a parking garage.
But the structure, which is bordered by 30th Street, University Avenue, North Park Way and 29th Street, has its shortcomings.
“Aside from weekends and large events the garage is generally at less than 50 percent capacity,” said city redevelopment project manager Michael Lengyel, who noted that most months the costs to operate the garage are more than the revenue generated, though revenue has been increasing.
“However, I do think it has been a good investment for North Park,” he said. “The purpose of the garage was not to make money, but meet demand from future growth in North Park and to support the North Park Theatre.”
And Lengyel said the $14 million parking garage, which opened in 2006, will only become more important in the future since plans call for the closure of the surface parking lot behind the theatre in a year to break ground on a mini-park. At that point, Lengyel said, the parking garage will be “absolutely necessary” for theatre patrons and those patronizing nearby restaurants and retail establishments.
Liz Studebaker, executive director of the community’s business improvement district, North Park Main Street, agrees North Park’s parking garage is fulfilling its “mission.”
“The parking structure is performing exactly as was predicted—perhaps better than predicted,” she said, noting it costs 50 cents an hour to park in the garage with a $5 daily maximum, which she described as “very affordable.”
Studebaker said garage usage is what one might expect: busiest on evenings and weekends, slower mid-week and mid-day.
“We have noticed the trend of increase in ‘regular’ users, folks who purchase a monthly pass and park there daily,” she said, adding transient use by non-daily users has remained steady and has not increased as significantly as monthly pass holders.
Another “fan” of the parking garage is Jay Porter, owner of The Linkery restaurant at 30th Street and North Park Way, directly across the street from the parking structure. The garage factored in to Porter’s decision to move his restaurant from south of Upas Street to the heart of North Park and is part of the reason why he’s remaining, he said. Besides, he likes how it looks and believes it’s a practical parking solution.
“It’s better for the aesthetics of the area, gets cars off the street,” he said. “It’s a good way to handle the issue of parking: Get the cars up in the air. We’ve both contributed to that (parking) and benefited from it.”
But a parking garage isn’t the only answer, Porter said.
“We wouldn’t need parking garages in the city if ideally we had a world-class public transportation system,” he said. “Until we commit to a more intelligent way of moving people, we’re going to need parking garages.”
Another issue related to the parking garage is the plan to install art panels on the building’s exterior. The project has continued to suffer delays.
Studebaker said the delays have been the result of the artist selection process and the overall concept of inserting temporary banners into the structure.
“The artist was selected by a panel of local community members, each with background experience in art, design, education, etcetera,” Studebaker said. “They met for six to eight months in 2008, invited artists to submit samples of their work to be considered for installation, reviewed submissions, interviewed artists and made a recommendation to the (city’s redevelopment) agency. After that, it took over a year to reach the final artist decision.”
Lengyel said that collaboration between the advisory panel working with city staff to select an artist will culminate in the adorning of 16 large panels on the garage’s side.
“A call for proposals was released that noted there wouldn’t be direct compensation for artists,” he said. “But there will be an auction to sell their original artwork. A number of artists submitted concept drawings. A public showing was held and comment cards were filled out by many in attendance.”
A local artist was initially selected for the parking garage art project based on overall feedback. However, she requested compensation for her time. Redevelopment agency staff decided to grant the payment but then were advised by the city’s general counsel that honoring her request would necessitate a new call for art proposals to be issued “since there may have been other artists that would have responded had they know there would be compensation.”
Ultimately, another artist, Blair Thornley, was well received by the advisory panel and was engaged by city staff.
“She has produced 16 wonderful pieces of art,” Lengyel said. “She met with the company that will be reproducing her art into the banners and discussed options to enlarge the art to that scale. Based on that feedback, she has decided to make a few changes, add some color to some of the artwork.”
However, added Lengyel, Thornley has been delayed with another engagement, and since she is a volunteer, agency staff advised her to “take the time she needs.”
“The priority is to make sure she is happy with the final reproductions,” he said. “Seventy-five thousand dollars has been allocated for the installers. They have pulled the permits for installation of the frames that will be holding the banners in place and will reproduce the artwork once it is finalized.”
The estimated cost of the art project has historically hovered at $50,000, said Studebaker.
“The bulk of the cost will be used for installation of a tracking system inside each panel to hold the banner art,” she said.
Another measure of the parking garage’s success is whether its presence has instilled confidence within the community that its parking needs are being fulfilled. Studebaker contends it has passed that litmus test.
“The parking structure is a community resource,” Studebaker said. “We have many other types of resources, including trash cans, street lighting, benches, crosswalks, trees, tree grates, etcetera. These are all signs to the community, the general public and business people that our community is cared for and worthy of visiting. From the Main Street perspective, the (parking) structure helps provide business investors confidence that North Park is a legitimate place to open their business.”
But considering its uneven usage, was building the parking garage a wise use of redevelopment money?
Studebaker believes the parking garage was an appropriate use of redevelopment funds. She said one only needs to compare the state of North Park today and with its past.
“Consider North Park 10 years ago,” she said. “The garage was opened four years ago. North Park received designation as a redevelopment area because of blight—there was a sincere need for public investment here.”
While many factors contribute to revitalization of an area, Studebaker said North Park “desperately needed a central parking structure to accommodate future development needs.”
The parking garage and the community theatre are inextricably linked in North Park, Studebaker added.
“The North Park Theatre is equally (if not more) important as the garage,” she said. “The two projects work hand in hand. The garage was intended to have long-term benefits for North Park, not to generate immediate profit or be a catalyst for drastic change.”