Parking puts dent in luring business Downtown group says scarcity, cost is a major deterrent

September 16, 1997|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,SUN STAFF

Baltimore's ability to attract business is being dampened by its scarce and expensive parking, according to a report being released today by the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore.

The city's parking problem is hardly a secret: Visitors confront "Full" signs even when the Orioles aren't in town. And employees wait for weeks or months to try to get a spot in a garage that will cost them between $60 and $200 a month.

But the report says that at a time when the city is poised to recapture some of those businesses that fled from crime and high rents a decade ago, parking is the major issue holding the city back. Baltimore could have gained 600 jobs last year if affordable parking had been available within several blocks, the report says.

"Whatever other issues exist in the city for business people, they are all second," said Carl Wright, president of A. J. Burton Group, which is in the Crestar Building at 12 E. Baltimore St. Wright said the parking problem made him consider moving his executive search firm to the suburbs.

Wright ended up staying, but the Downtown Partnership recommends that the city ease the problem by creating 1,500 more parking spaces in the next three to five years, hiring an experienced person to head the effort and helping subsidize parking for some businesses.

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke said yesterday that he "was persuaded that there was a significant problem of access to parking spaces and that we needed to create a uniquely Baltimore solution to the problem."

The mayor said he has already begun a search for a nationally recognized parking expert who would be hired as a full-time city employee to look at the situation and advise him on the best

mechanism to solve it.

Schmoke stopped short of saying he would set up an independent authority -- with separate bond-issuing authority -- to take over parking from the Department of Public Works. He said he wanted to first get the advice of the expert he hires on whether a new agency is needed.

"I really want to move as quickly as possible," the mayor said.

The report says, that while the city as a whole has enough spaces, the downtown core is 3,600 spaces short, in part because office space was constructed at twice the rate of parking in the past decade. Baltimore badly trails other middle-size cities such as Kansas City, Mo.; Portland, Ore.; and Rochester, N.Y., in the number of parking spaces per square feet of office space.

Of 70 business executives interviewed for another Downtown Partnership report in 1996, 58 percent said they felt that the biggest challenge of operating a business downtown was parking, more so than crime, panhandling, taxes or other issues.

The Downtown Partnership said the city lost six companies last year that would have located downtown. Those companies and their employees would have added $7 million in purchases, expenditures and rent to the local economy, the survey said.

United HealthCare is one company that left the city because of the parking problem. Leon Kaplan was chief executive when the company was looking for a way to expand its business. He found affordable offices in the Candler Building, but parking was a problem.

"My preference had been to stay downtown. But when you included parking, it made the deal almost prohibitive," Kaplan said. "We went into the suburbs [Woodlawn] where parking was free."

Fortunately for Baltimore, companies are finding it more difficult to get commercial space in the suburbs. For businesses that need a substantial amount of space in Towson, Owings Mills or Annapolis, it is almost impossible to find the space today, said Gil Hutzler, a commercial real estate broker with Manekin Corp.

And so Baltimore, with its ready supply of different types of vacant office space, has become a much more affordable option for businesses in the past decade. In fact, many businesses are moving or expanding into vacant office space. Six months ago, 16 percent of the best office space in downtown, known as Class A, was vacant, said Kevin Wille, a commercial real estate broker with Casey & Assoc. Inc. Today, only 11.6 percent of the space is vacant.

But businesses often cannot find parking within several blocks of their offices, and even when they can, it often is so expensive that it adds significantly to the cost of doing business, said Laurie Schwartz, president of the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore, a independent nonprofit business- development organization.

While the problem is severe, she said, "the good news is that it is solvable."

But if the city does not begin to address the problem immediately, it will lose the opportunity to attract businesses that are now frustrated by the lack of space in the counties.

The report identifies 12 privately owned downtown locations that could be sites for new parking garages. Some would require existing buildings to be torn down, and the costs to build would be at least $12,000 per parking space.

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