When it comes to prevailing opinions of Downtown Lawrence property owners there have been two that have stood the test of time: more public parking and fewer property taxes.
Soon, city commissioners may arrange for those two ideas to collide. City Manager David Corliss’ office is proposing that nearly every downtown property owner would pay a special tax to add an extra level and about 75 additional parking spaces for a public parking garage that will be built next the Lawrence Public Library.
“We get very few opportunities to add a significant number of parking spaces downtown,” Corliss said. “We do it about once a decade. It seems to me that now is the time to ask the question of whether we want to add more parking spaces.”
The next question, though, may be tougher: Who ought to pay for the $1.2 million project?
Corliss is proposing that downtown property owners would pay a special assessment on their property taxes — for up to 10 years — to pay for the additional parking. That’s the part of the plan downtown property owners will have to do some thinking about.
“Does more parking hold appeal? No doubt,” said Mark Swanson, a property owner who runs Hobbs and Spectators in Downtown Lawrence. “Does another bang on property taxes hold any appeal? No, but I understand somebody has to pay for it. It is a tough one. I’m scratching my head on this one.”
As estimated by the city, property owners along much of Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire and parts of Kentucky streets would pay 47 cents for every square foot of land they own in the downtown district. For a typical 25-foot-wide retail lot on Massachusetts Street, that would amount to about $140 a year for 10 years.
Mayor Bob Schumm — who owns downtown property and a operates a restaurant in downtown — supports the proposal.
“I’m at all times in favor of finding more parking for downtown,” Schumm said. “On the north end of downtown we are particularly short of parking. It will be about $12 a month for most property owners. If it creates more opportunity for your commercial district, that’s a pretty good bang for your buck.”
City Commissioner Mike Amyx, who owns property and operates a barber shop in downtown, said property owners will have to make a decision about how much they’ll benefit from the new garage.
“A whole lot of us are going to have to make a decision about whether it is a reasonable investment to make,” Amyx said. “In today’s time, everybody is trying to make sure they understand where every dime goes. Nobody wants to see a tax increase of any kind.”
Downtown property owners do have the option to file a protest petition to stop the special assessment. To do so, more than half the district will have to object to the proposal.
Some downtown property owners aren’t sure how much they’ll benefit from a new parking garage that will be located between the Lawrence Public Library and the Douglas County Senior Services building in the 700 block of Vermont Street.
“It is not going to help the customer parking issue,” said Rod Ernst, who owns several downtown buildings and operates Ernst & Son Hardware in downtown. “Customers want to park at your front door.”
But Schumm said he thinks the new parking garage will be an attractive place downtown employees to park, which will free up more spaces closer to Massachusetts Street. Plus, he said during the summer parking for the swimming pool often spills into spaces that really ought to be utilized by shoppers.
As proposed, the city has enough money to build about a 250-space parking garage at the same time it expands the Lawrence Public Library. The city included funding for the garage in the $18 million bond issue approved by voters. The additional $1.2 million that would be funded by the downtown tax would pay to add another level to the garage, which would bring the total spaces up to about 325.
Commissioners will discuss the parking garage issue at a budget study session at 4 p.m. on Tuesday at City Hall. City officials hope to begin construction work on the library and parking garage this fall.