City considers formation of parking agency

Authority would set goals, deal with lack of downtown spaces

July 07, 2000|By M. Dion Thompson | M. Dion Thompson,SUN STAFF

Anyone familiar with parking in Baltimore knows that looking for a space can be a frustrating experience in which every garage seemingly has a "full" sign and every meter is taken.

The city needs thousands more parking spaces, and not only downtown. Redeveloped areas lining the waterfront from Inner Harbor East to Canton are no better, and the same holds true across the Inner Harbor in Federal Hill. Development officials say the shortage can be a deal-breaker for the city.

"It bedevils all of the deals that we are engaged in," M. J. "Jay" Brodie, president of the Baltimore Development Corp., recently told a City Council subcommittee. "The difference between a city site and a county site is often parking."

Baltimore's parking shortage has reached such a crisis point that the council will meet in a special summer session Monday to consider Mayor Martin O'Malley's proposal to establish a Baltimore City Parking Authority. The agency would develop a strategy to address the city's parking needs and oversee its implementation.

Legislation clearing the way for creation of the five-member authority sailed through the General Assembly this spring. O'Malley wants the City Council bill establishing the authority before summer ends.

"It's crucial to being able to accommodate the people we want to attract to the downtown area, be they tourists, shoppers, or business folk, said Tony White, the mayor's spokesman. "And it's important for the people who work downtown to have parking."

The authority would supercede the all-but-defunct Off-Street Parking Commission and coordinate the city's now-fragmented parking efforts. Elements of parking management are now in the Department of Public Works. DPW controls some lots, as does the Department of Housing and Community Development and the quasi-public BDC.

Lisa Raimundo, director of business development for the Downtown Partnership and a key player in O'Malley's push, said the authority would act as the manager for the city's parking needs, taking into consideration on- and off-street parking.

Under the legislation, the authority would not be able to condemn properties or issue parking revenue bonds to pay for garage construction. The city already has those powers through provisions in the Maryland Constitution and City Charter, and such moves require approval by the Board of Estimates and City Council.

Debt from earlier parking bonds and any issued in the future would be backed by the Parking Enterprise Fund, which is made up of parking fees, taxes and fines, officials said.

The O'Malley administration's bill is based in part on "Gateways to Growth," a report on the city's parking problem published three years ago by the Downtown Partnership. Even with 24,000 spaces downtown, the report said, Baltimore needs at least 3,600 more. The report noted that from 1986 to 1996, office space grew at twice the rate of parking space.

Though the bill spells out the parking authority's mission and general makeup, some specifics of how the agency would work have not been finalized. The bill proposes funding the authority with $9 million now designated for parking functions in DPW, but the agency's budget and its fiscal ramifications are unknown. Additional expenditures might be needed, officials said.

Benefits packages for about two dozen DPW employees who could be transferred to the authority must be worked out. The managerial and clerical workers might be offered lateral moves within city government or jobs with the authority, officials said.

Councilman John L. Cain, who chairs the Highways and Franchises subcommittee and will bring the bill to the council, said he hopes the administration will talk soon to the city employees whose jobs will be affected, rather than wait until the bill's probable enactment in the fall.

Cain is suggesting an amendment that would require City Council review of the authority's effectiveness.

"To me, it doesn't matter the length of time, just as long as there is a revisiting" of the issue, the East Baltimore Democrat said.

Supporters of the bill say the authority would resolve Baltimore's lack of planning or focus on parking. A state juvenile justice center is being built near downtown without adequate parking, for example, and the Maryland Museum of African-American History and Culture was approved without any parking being provided. In Hampden, a fight over a proposed 27-space lot has pitted a convenience store chain against area residents and shopkeepers.

Last week, the Board of Estimates approved a $12 million parking garage for Little Italy that will solve the museum's problems as well as those in the surrounding area. But that deal came about after nearly a decade of failed discussions. Two years ago, the Board of Estimates approved a $47 million deal for four parking garages downtown. All remain on the drawing board.

"Frankly, right now, there aren't any real spaces available," said Raimundo. "So, yes, there is a real sense of urgency."

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