LJWorld.com weblogs Town Talk
City asked to cut downtown employees a break on parking; talk of a downtown liquor store versus downtown grocery
At last night’s Lawrence City Commission meeting, I felt like we were pretty close to hearing one of those “back in my days, we walked up hill both ways” type of stories. The subject was downtown parking, and how far downtown employees may have to walk to find a free parking space.
Perhaps you have seen that there is a petition floating around the Internet protesting a parking change that is about to happen downtown. In early September, city officials will start charging people to park on the roof of the parking garage at Ninth and New Hampshire streets. For years, the city has offered free, long-term parking on the roof, and it gradually has become a popular place for downtown employees to park.
Downtown employee Mallory Liss has started an online petition asking commissioners to offer free parking passes to people who can prove they are downtown employees, or absent that, at least a reduced-fee, monthly parking pass for downtown employees. As of this morning, the petition had 196 signatures.
City commissioners last night reacted a bit like we do when we find one of those pretty yellow envelopes underneath our windshield wipers. They weren’t too enthusiastic. (I thought I had better clarify, in case you thought I meant they put it in their purse, proceeded to go shoe shopping, repeated the process daily, and then several months later were holed up in my storm shelter with their chocolate fountain hiding from a warrant related to outstanding parking tickets. That didn’t happen. Not to city commissioners, anyway.)
Instead, commissioners pointed out that free, long-term parking is available on the rooftop level of the city’s new parking garage next to the public library at 7th and Vermont streets.
“It seems like that is the answer to the situation,” City Commissioner Bob Schumm said. “There are quite a few spaces there.” (About 70.)
But Liss, who works at Weaver’s, pointed out the 7th and Vermont parking garage isn’t as centrally located as the Ninth and New Hampshire garage. That’s when I thought we were going to hear the up hill both ways story, but we didn’t quite get there.
“Well,” Schumm said, “if we were in New York City or even the Plaza, that would be a really short walk. Plus, it is healthy for you.”
After the meeting, Liss said she’s also concerned about when the city will decide to take away the free spaces on the top level of the Vermont Street parking garage.
Commissioners didn’t completely rule out her idea for a reduced rate parking pass for downtown employees. They asked city staff to prepare a report in the next few weeks. But they also noted that parking in downtown Lawrence is pretty cheap. For $192, the city sells an annual pass that allows people to park in any long-term space in downtown. That rate hasn’t been raised since . . . at least 1996. But Liss noted that for a part-time, downtown employee waiting tables or clerking a register, it can be difficult to come up with nearly $200 all at once. That’s why she would like the option of buying a monthly pass. The city doesn’t offer a monthly pass, but it does offer a quarterly pass, but sales of those passes have been light. The city has sold 67 of the quarterly passes thus far in 2014, compared to 672 of the annual passes.
City officials say they are removing the free parking designation from the New Hampshire Street garage because demand for that garage is greatly increasing with the apartments nearby and all the development that is happening at the intersection. And the city would like to collect as much fee revenue as it can from the garage because the city’s parking fund could use it.
The city’s recent budget process served as a reminder that the parking fund is technically a money-loser. In 2013, the parking fund took in $1.1 million but spent $1.2 million. Even though the city will get new revenue from the Vermont Street parking garage in 2015, revenue for the parking fund is projected to go down by about $70,000 because the new garage is expected to cut down on the number of people who receive overtime parking fines in the city’s short-term spaces.
It also is important to remember that the money motorists pay to park in downtown really does very little to fund maintenance of the city’s parking garages or lots. Maintenance of those facilities basically comes from general tax dollars. The parking fees largely fund the five parking control officers who go around and monitor the meters and write the tickets. In addition, the fees fund about 10 other city positions, including three Municipal Court clerks, three police officers, and some maintenance workers in public works and parks and recreation.
In short, the city’s parking fund is an odd one, but as City Manager David Corliss points out frequently, its purpose is not to make money. Its main purpose is to help keep downtown healthy.
We’ll see where this parking discussion goes. But Liss does bring up an interesting issue. A part-time student clerk who works, for example, 20-hours a week for 40 weeks a year at $8 an hour is probably spending about 3 percent of her gross pay on parking if she buys a city permit. It would be an even greater percentage of her net pay. Whether that constitutes a burden probably depends on where you sit. One thing, however, is certain: Downtown wouldn’t work as well as it does if it wasn’t for the relatively cheap labor that waits tables and staffs cash registers.
In other news and notes from around town:
• How about a liquor store in downtown Lawrence? Some folks aren’t excited about the idea. Leaders with the Downtown Grocery Project have begun expressing concern that the former Borders site at Seventh and New Hampshire may be purchased to serve as a liquor store. The leaders of the grocery group aren’t excited about that prospect. They believe the Borders store should be used to house a small, urban grocery store.
Mayor Mike Amyx said he wants to have a discussion about whether liquor stores should be allowed in the downtown zoning district. Currently, they are allowed, there just happens to be none on Massachusetts, New Hampshire or Vermont. There is Jensen’s near Ninth and Mississippi. Commissioners agreed to have the discussion, but Schumm said he wanted to be careful about deleting possible uses in the downtown area. As more people live in the downtown area, they’re likely to want convenience-based businesses, such as liquor stores. He noted that in the 1970s, there were several liquor stores downtown.
For what it is worth, Schumm said he’s been told the rumors of a liquor store going into the Borders space are false. I haven’t heard that either. While we’re passing along rumors, the most interesting one I’ve heard is that an independent Wichita-based grocer has an interest in the site, but I haven’t been able to confirm that. Amyx has indicated he’s spent some time in meetings recently about a downtown grocery, but he said it was too early to provide any details.
The Downtown Grocery Project is making a point to highlight that the Borders building is the only site that currently meets all the requirements for a downtown grocery. I won’t debate that, but that may be changing. I know the developers of the multistory hotel at Ninth and New Hampshire have ground floor space where they would like a grocery. Plus, Doug Compton’s proposal to redevelop the Allen Press property at 11th and Massachusetts also could feasibly include a grocery component. Thus far talk at that site has focused more on a drug store being the retail anchor tenant for an apartment project, but in case you haven’t noticed, talk on that project has slowed significantly. I had expected by this time that CVS would have announced its intention to go into the space. That hasn’t happened, but when I talked to Compton more than a month ago, he said he was still very much interested in redeveloping the space.