500-space parking garage is opening today downtown

CitiFinancial to get 275 spaces as part of expansion deal

November 08, 2003|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

Baltimore is opening a 500-space garage today at 210 St. Paul Place to help ease the parking crunch for nearby shops and the expanded CitiFinancial Corp. headquarters.

Companies have complained in recent years about parking shortages in the central business district - including some firms that defected to the suburbs - but city economic development officials think many of the problems have been solved.

City government and private developers have built 4,500 spaces in the district in the past two years, including this most recent addition at St. Paul Place. The 13-story facility replaced a 90-spot parking lot.

CitiFinancial snapped up more than half the new garage's spaces - 275 all told - as part of a deal to expand its headquarters in Baltimore.

The $16 million project incorporates some high-tech features that are catching on in the parking industry. There's no cashier: Customers either pay at a machine in the lobby or swipe their credit card while driving away. You can take a ticket on the way in, or you can swipe your credit card instead and again when leaving, eliminating paper entirely.

"It's so quick to get in and out of this garage," said Jeff Sparrow, executive director of the city Parking Authority. "Instead of having the traditional cashier at the exit ... our goal is to have these people out in the garage, meeting and greeting people, being able to have eyes and ears throughout the whole garage so they can almost act as security."

The Parking Authority has added the automated payment feature to six other garages in the past year, Sparrow said.

Baltimore paid for $13 million of the cost of the garage with parking revenue bonds. The rest of the money - $3 million-came from the state's One Maryland program.

James L. Shea, chairman of the Downtown Partnership and managing partner at the law firm Venable, said the parking-space building spree in the past few years helped matters.

"I would say the parking crisis has eased," he said. "It's not eliminated, but it's eased. ... Now we really need to turn our attention to a robust and balanced transportation system that doesn't rely as predominantly on the automobile."

The newest garage is particularly useful because the Charles Street area is congested, Shea said.

Cas Webber, manager at Beadazzled, a North Charles Street shop that sells beads, jewelry, crafts and collectibles, heartily agrees. She's delighted the city is opening a garage nearby but calls 500 spaces "basically a drop in the bucket."

"Parking's pretty bad around here," said Webber, who's worked at the store for nine years and on North Charles Street for 15. "It's a problem for the people who work in the area, and it's also a problem for customers. It was a problem before the revitalization of Charles Street - it's gotten incredibly worse."

She's lost track of the times that shoppers have told her, "I've been trying to come down here for a month, but every time I come I can't find a place to park."

Irene E. Van Sant, project analysis director at the Baltimore Development Corp., which developed the new garage, agrees that demand for parking is high in the neighborhood, even with the new Mercy Health Services garage nearby.

CitiFinancial added 500 employees to its St. Paul Place headquarters in the past year, and between the workers and the people heading to Circuit Court, there hasn't been much left for shoppers looking to stop in the area for a few hours.

"The parking operators have had a lot of calls from people interested in parking there," Van Sant said.

This is the city's 17th parking facility. It owns about 12 percent of the parking spaces downtown.

Rates at the St. Paul Place garage start at $4 for an hour or less. The city will charge $13 for 12 to 24 hours, with a flat fee of $5 for up to 12 hours on weekends and on weekday evenings. A parking pass costs $175 a month, or $250 a month for a reserved space.

Martin Stein, executive director of the National Parking Association, said the automated payment options Baltimore is using are increasingly popular, though not every high-tech facility has a machine in the lobby as well as at the exit.

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