Specials mark end of parking crisis

Critics fear new garages will harm mass transit, downtown's appearance

March 23, 2003|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,SUN STAFF

The "early-bird special" is back.

In hiding for years, the discount parking rate for early risers can be found again in downtown Baltimore - a sign that garages are having trouble filling spaces and that the parking crisis bemoaned by businesses is over.

One new parking garage opened last month, another will open next month, and three more will be ready by the end of the year. They will bring 3,500 new spaces to downtown and provide more parking than ever before.

"There are vacancies everywhere," said Chris Sherman, general manager for Central Parking System, the city's largest garage operator. "At 11 a.m., which is peak time, you'll find there are empty spaces in every single garage all across the harbor, from President Street to Light Street."

The garage-building blitz coming to fruition is welcome news to businesses. But others worry that cheap and plentiful parking will discourage people from using mass transit and sap the life from downtown - a region the city is trying to turn into a 24-hour destination.

"You come to downtown to see historic places and the things that make downtown distinctive. A parking garage on every block is not going to do that," said Dan Pontious, head of the Baltimore Regional Partnership. "At some point, you lose what makes downtown downtown."

Along Lombard Street in the heart of the city, large placards lure drivers into garages on virtually every block. Among the cheapest is the new 940-space garage at Lockwood Place, which charges $6.50 per day. Nearby garages have responded with $7 early-bird specials.

Even the garage at The Gallery at Harborplace revived its early-bird special this month. Eight dollars will buy you a prime parking space at the Inner Harbor all day long.

"We're getting to the point, when all these garages come on line, that we're starting to see open spaces and that it is getting competitive out there," said Jeff Sparrow, executive director of the city's parking authority. The 3,500 new spaces are on top of the 24,000 that were already downtown.

Setting priorities

The O'Malley administration decided, upon taking office three years ago, to make parking a priority. The city acquired land and demolished buildings, then built garages on its own or sold the land to developers to do the same.

Those developers were given tax breaks - some will pay just 5 percent of their property tax for up to 20 years - to induce them to build. Garages are expensive to construct, about $16,000 per space.

"We absolutely had to do it," said Mayor Martin O'Malley, who said business leaders have finally stopped pestering him about parking. "You've got to have the infrastructure in place for the businesses in your city to keep growing. Otherwise, people pick up and move."

Development officials said businesses were leaving Baltimore or opening back offices in the suburbs because of the lack of affordable downtown parking. Five years ago, a study done for the Downtown Partnership found a need for 4,000 more spaces. Now, they're almost here.

"There certainly has been a great sigh of relief in the downtown business community that we were finally able to really break the logjam," said Michele Whelley, president of the Downtown Partnership. "We're finally moving in the right direction."

Transit officials - whose job is to get people out of their cars - acknowledge that some level of parking is needed to attract businesses downtown. The more businesses that come to the city, the more potential transit riders there are. Officials expect about 20 percent of workers at a downtown employer to use transit and 80 percent to drive.

"But if those 80 percent can't park, then the firms won't come and we won't get the 20 percent either," said Henry M. Kay, director of planning for the Maryland Transit Administration. "If businesses end up going to Timonium, then 100 percent are driving."

Maintaining balance

Still, the MTA is concerned about adding thousands of spaces to downtown every year. Lowering parking rates and encouraging people to drive could lead to congestion on city streets and make it hard to maintain a reasonable bus schedule, Kay said.

"We'd like the city to closely monitor the supply and demand because too much parking reduces incentives to take transit, and the region's going to suffer with more congestion and more air pollution," Kay said. "We appreciate the investment in downtown. It's just about a balance."

Critics say the city, in the rush to build garages, cut some corners that will affect the vitality of downtown for years to come. Three of the four garages to open by December do not include retail space on the first floor, which makes garages more attractive.

There are several challenges to including retail. When the city builds a garage by selling bonds, the money raised can only be used for public purposes. That means money to pay for the retail part of a garage would have to come from another source, and setting that up takes time - time city officials didn't think they had.

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