City Commission candidates debate downtown parking issues at forum

Improving the availability of parking in downtown Lawrence is likely on the to-do list of the next City Commission, but candidates on Tuesday weren’t of the same mind on how to get the job done.

At a candidate forum hosted by Downtown Lawrence Inc., the six candidates floated ideas such as zoning changes, public-private partnerships, additional parking garages and increased availability of free parking as options.

Commissioner Terry Riordan said it may be time for the city to reconsider its zoning laws in downtown. Currently, much of downtown has a unique zoning designation that allows projects to be built without providing off-street parking. But as downtown has continued its trend of multistory office and apartment buildings, concern has grown that the district may run short of parking.

“I think we have to re-look at the idea that people can put something in and not have to provide parking,” Riordan said.

But Riordan said the city also should be prepared to be part of public-private partnerships that could add parking in downtown. He noted the city owns numerous surface parking lots in downtown and said the city has a lot of opportunities to be creative with that property.

Candidate Leslie Soden said she thinks an additional parking garage may be needed in downtown, but she cautioned against the public-private partnership model. Instead, she said the city could stop giving tax breaks to many of the new downtown projects and then invest a portion of those tax dollars into building new garages. She said if the city hadn’t approved a tax break for a pending expansion of the Eldridge Hotel — which is not providing new parking as part of its plan — the city perhaps could have built a new public garage at Seventh and Vermont or perhaps Ninth and Vermont.

“Then we would have public money being spent on public parking,” Soden said. “We need to use taxpayer dollars for straightforward public projects.”

Candidate Stan Rasmussen said he expects another parking garage and perhaps additions to existing garages will be needed in the foreseeable future. But he said the city also needs to rethink its parking strategy in downtown. He said a shortage of free parking may be hurting the downtown district, especially since other shopping districts — such as The Legends and Zona Rosa — don’t require shoppers to pay for parking.

“Whenever we give someone a $3 ticket (for over-parking) we really have soured someone on their experience in Lawrence,” Rasmussen said.

Candidate Matthew Herbert stopped short of saying he would support another parking garage in downtown but expressed concern about allowing development to occur without providing off-street parking.

“One of the reasons downtown isn’t the place some people want to go is because they can’t find a place to park,” Herbert said.

City Commissioner Bob Schumm said the city has historically added a parking garage about once a decade to downtown. It just added a new garage as part of the recent library project on Vermont Street.

“It is a very expensive proposition,” Schumm said of new parking garages. “But you can put decks on any one of those city-owned parking lots and create more space. We do have to stay ahead of the curve.”

Candidate Stuart Boley said he understands there is a concern about parking in downtown, but he said he wants to think long term about solutions.

“I really like the human scale of downtown,” Boley said. “I it is just such a comfortable place. I’m worried about more and more cars. I wonder what we lose if we do that. Let’s think what we can be in 20 or 30 years. My idea of 20 or 30 years is not just all kinds of parking lots surrounding downtown.”

The City Commission General Election will be April 7. The top three finishers in the election will win at-large seats on the five-member City Commission.

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