Excess parking at Mercer Commons adding millions to project costs

Project officials broke ground on the long-anticipated Mercer Commons project nearly one month ago. Once complete, the $56 million development will include 154 housing units, 26,000 square feet of commercial space, and a staggering 359 parking spaces.

Leading up to the project’s ceremonious groundbreaking, local preservationists had been concerned about Mercer Commons’ impact on the neighborhood’s historic fabric. But while much attention was paid to material treatment and exterior facades, not much was critiqued of the amount of parking.

According to the city’s zoning code, the development is mandated to provide one parking spot per residential unit, and one parking spot per 400 square feet of commercial space. Had the project merely followed what is prescribed in the city’s zoning code, then it would have had 161 fewer parking spaces.

The financial impact Mercer Commons’ parking is significant. 140 fewer spaces inside the new Mercer Commons Garage would have resulted in approximately $3.5 million in savings.

What’s more is that the portions of the Mercer Commons development along Vine Street qualify for a 50 percent parking reduction for being within 600 feet of a streetcar stop, thanks to a new regulation approved by the City of Cincinnati in June 2010.

Of the development’s 154 housing units, 30 of them will be affordable apartments which are likely to have occupants that cannot afford a personal automobile. Should you factor those two elements into the parking equation, then you would see the cost savings increase by approximately $750,000, bringing the total project cost down approximately $4.25 million.

The City has also recently considered eliminating minimum parking requirements in neighborhoods like Over-the-Rhine entirely.

“Although Over-the-Rhine is a walkable community, and the streetcar is coming, parking still needs to be addressed for residents, tenants and visitors,” explained Anastasia Mileham, Vice President of Communications with the Cincinnati Center City Development Corporation (3CDC) explained.

The $56M Mercer Commons development will include 154 residential units, 26,000SF of commercial space and 359 parking spaces once finished. Rendering provided.

According to 3CDC officials, some of the additional parking is there to support existing commercial retail in nearby developments that lacked enough parking when they were originally built, and that the parking lot at Twelfth and Vine, Valet Parking, Washington Park Garage, Mercer Commons Garage and future small lots and parking spaces are all considered in future planning efforts.

Mileham also says that their development corporation is also working with city officials to designate specific parking meters as residential only.

“We have gotten some complaints about parking, but when we gathered community input about Mercer Commons, parking was expressed as a need,” Mileham clarified.

The new above-ground parking garage is part of the first of three phases of development at Mercer Commons, and is expected to open in March 2013.

  • This seems a bit sensationalist, no? 3CDC’s points seem right on the money to me, especially when we’re thinking about increased visitors to the neighborhood.

  • Randy, I agree with your sentiment here. It sets a bad precedent. Cars beget cars – this concept seems lost on many people. I think the common thinking is: the more off-street designated parking spaces there are, the better traffic conditions will be. If that were true, the suburbs would be a driver’s paradise, with no congestion. The fact is, if you build infrastructure to support auto travel, the more you will get auto travel in your neighborhood. People who drive everywhere will now consider your part of town to live. If, however, you build a neighborhood that relies on transit and attracts people who want to walk to work, your neighborhood will benefit from low traffic congestion, not more.
    Also, there are plenty of people out there that are willing to give up their cars to live in very urban areas where other like-minded, often young people are. I used to live in the Midwest and have since moved to Philadelphia where I live and work in Center City. I have met so many people who also used to live in the Midwest, drove everywhere, and upon moving to Philly (or New York, or DC) they willingly ditched their cars so they could live in the urban environment where all the other young people were. People are willing to get rid of their car or not drive all together if the social benefits are high enough. Cincinnati needs to focus on creating higher social benefits associated with urban living and worry less about having ample parking.

  • Dan

    If you want to remove or reduce parking in Cincinnati you have to provide other transportation options. If you want people to live/work/play in OTR or anywhere in downtown, there have to be realistic parking options as most of us cannot contain our lives to the few square miles that make up downtown or that are served by the upcoming streetcar.

  • I would make the completely opposite argument about the amount of structured parking that 3CDC is incorporating into their developments.

    Firstly 3CDC is performing a redevelopment function of providing structured parking that only a large developer can bring to the table. In a neighborhood as dense as OTR it is clearly the preferred method of incorporating parking into the existing form vs having many small developers chipping away at the existing building stock for scattered surface lots.

    Secondly I believe that the garages which 3CDC has already completed have been what has actually been the catalyst for redevelopment of the neighborhood (at least on Vine St.) up until this point. Without that new garage at Vine and 12th you’d never have been able to sustain the strip of restaurants and bars there or sell the condos for those prices. That amenity alone has given new residents and suburban visitors alike a new sense of security where they are now willing to get out of their cars and experience the rest of the great development work 3CDC is doing there.

    [The Washington Park garage should have a similar effect on the residential units and office space to the north and northeast as well as bring the Music Hall crowd more into the neighborhood after shows. The Mercer Commons garage should do the same while also facilitating use of the Kroger’s to more than just those in walking distance of the store. (Hopefully the streetcar will add to things by amplifying things north of Liberty towards Findley Market and make the neighborhood more multi-modal in the process) As critical mass builds, traffic will be an issue on Liberty especially from visitors with cars coming from the expressways and hopefully will justify a redevelopment of Liberty a la Central Parkway’s medians, which will give further momentum towards heading north of Liberty. 3CDC should continue to slowly move north at that point incorporating decentralized structured parking with close access to Vine, Liberty, Central Parkway, and McMicken throughout the northern half of OTR leaving the remaining streets walkable and car unfriendly. —– that’s my theory of 3CDC’s long term plans and strategy]

    Therefore I think 3CDC should continue to invest as much in structured parking throughout OTR as they can in order to fill the void of safe parking for future residents, so that it is structured and doesn’t necessitate tearing down more buildings.

    If you really think about it, in the past most of the ones willing to live in OTR were too poor to need safe parking because they either didn’t have cars or not very nice ones. They relied more on buses and walking. The more wealthy residents wouldn’t move in because they didn’t want their nicer cars potentially damaged and they were wealthy enough to want a car still because of the perceived luxury/freedom of it. Now the wealthy are getting that amenity and moving in and that added amenity is increasing rents, which pushes the poorer out. It’s a shame because access to jobs should be growing and they should be able to connect with them a la the streetcar and buses throughout OTR more easily.

    • Neil Clingerman

      Your taking a perspective that’s not shared by people in more transit rich areas, its not JUST the poor who can take the bus. In fact in Chicago the lake shore express buses are full of very wealthy people who live in the many expensive condo towers by the lake. The real issue here is changing perceptions of transit in Cincinnati and improving the service that is already offered (though in OTR at least its quite easy to get uptown and downtown with what’s currently available, its a shame that so many of the places people want/need to go are so sprawled out.).

    • I used generalities because I realize that you can’t fit the poor into the bus category and the wealthy into the car category. And as you point out, in other areas the lines are blurred much more (for the better), but the reality is that Cincinnati fits this stereotype more closely than those other places because, as you pointed out, of the spread out nature of our city (and I’d add our topography). My point was that the lack of safe parking was keeping the richer demographic out of the neighborhood, until recently, due to the richer demo’s reliance on cars. Adding safe parking (preferably structured) was the only way to bring in this demographic, and I’d argue make more of the redevelopment work happening in this area financially successful.

    • Neil Clingerman

      As amenities fill into Cincinnati’s urban core I think the idea would be to encourage more people to go by bus, maybe even start some kind of campaign to help it a long 🙂 Its only a matter of time before much retail starts filling in based on where the neighborhood is going.

  • Structured parking spaces typically cost between $25,000 to $40,000. Because of the high cost of including the amount of parking a developer thinks would sustain demand, costs for the spaces are included into the cost of residential units or commercial rent. We pay indirectly for the costs associated with any type of parking. It’s not as free as it seems.

    Although providing abundant parking in the core may seem like a good thing, it is only a short term measure that becomes a long term problem as developable space is a premium and the garages deteriorate and require maintenance. It is true that the streetcar itself is not enough justification for abandoning the automobile for travel but developers and planners must recognize the the decreasing desire for autos and the increasing demand for alternative travel and plan accordingly. This is the impetus for removing parking restrictions because they allow flexibility for smallers scale development that does not have to be dependent on garages and other off-site parking options and can appeal to a growing market that is looking to lead a lifestyle less encumbered by the car. It’s something that is not impossible to do right now in Cincinnati but will become easier as new streetcar extensions, light rail and possible BRT corridors are developed and linked together into a comprehensive regional transit system.

  • I visit OTR and downtown regularly and have never even thought about using ‘structured parking. While I long for the day that the demand for parking is greater than supply for these areas as an indication of success in developing demand for these areas, that day sees very far off. I have never been prevented from doing anything anywhere in Cincinnati due to parking. I remain sceptical that these large investments in parking structures are truly economic without subsidized financial arrangements. Maybe the elimination of parking minimums will let the real market value of parking to become clear and encourage more efficient development.

    • Even in a world with no parking minimums and a streetcar in OTR, there is going to be a need for parking due at the very least to the spread out and hilly nature of the city. As far as I know structured parking is the most efficient land use for storing cars. Even though I’d agreed it’s a long way off, if OTR is to ever return to anywhere close to the density it once had and to which it was built for, then better for structured parking be put in place now. What’s lacking is perceived “safe” parking. To you or I who would gladly park on the street over valet, parking is not a problem in OTR. To the suburban executive with the BMW, it’s the difference between checking out the neighborhood or not. It’s bringing a new demographic out of the suburbs and into the neighborhood to help reinforce the redevelopment by possibly adding a new layer of empty nesters to the mix(See the Biz Courier recently).

      If you’d ever seen the financials for a garage in a good location, it would be pretty clear how much economic sense it makes from the developers side of things. The better land-use, higher real estate taxes, and added utility to residents and businesses around it, I would argue, make sense from the other side of the table as well. This is about as efficient as it gets.

    • I feel LESS ‘safe’ in a parking garage than on the street. You and your car are hidden from view and more easily trapped on foot or in your car in the case of some sort of confrontation than on a street with many pathways and more potential viewers. Nothing prevents criminals from entering a parking garage.
      The only time my car has ever been broken into was the parking garage at the Tricounty Mall. I admit, I’ve never been back.

    • It will only prove to be efficient of future developments surrounding this garage don’t build their own private parking lots to meet the government’s parking mandate…something most every development in OTR has done to date.

    • I agree; getting rid of parking minimums is the only way for this to work long term. I feel (hope) it’s coming once the streetcar and these garages are in place. Area resident discounts in these garages might also be a solution which 3CDC could throw in to encourage new developers not to need to make their own parking, with visitors still paying full price.

      Matt, sorry to hear about your bad experience with parking garages. I was referring more to the safety of the car than the person driving it. Insurance companies give discounts for parking in garages vs the street for a reason. They don’t want their BMW side-swiped, keyed, or dented.

    • Again, it was my car that was damaged in the Tricounty parking garage, not me.

  • 56 million for concrete, pipes, wire, and glass? With that kind of money a developer could build a huge subdivision of three-bedroom homes with garages and concrete driveways. Many of the units at Mercer Commons will probably one or two bedroom units. How can it possibly cost sooooo much more to build compact units with shared walls in a ghetto?

    • Construction costs are the same in a ‘ghetto’ as they are anywhere else. The subdivisions you talk about sure aren’t built out of concrete, they’re built of plastic and styrofroam as far as I can tell.

    • Zachary Schunn

      Checked the prices of condos in the “ghetto” lately? The costs are high because it’s higher-quality development, on higher-demand land.

  • I think 3CDC is confused. We’re not talking about commuting Kroger employees here. We’re talking about residents that are likely to work downtown and not need their car for every daily need. And if you’re not ready to park and leave your car a block or two from your residence, I’m not sure you’re ready for urban living.

  • Zachary Schunn

    I’m going to give 3CDC the benefit of the doubt and say they did the market research on how much parking they would need. While I support removing parking minimums from the code, and would like to see some of our half-empty parking lots downtown find higher and better uses, parking is still necessary in OTR even in this day and age. Blame the demand, not the supply.

    The financial argument can be made for the extra spaces, but honestly I doubt that’s 3CDC’s angle. If they rent the spaces out for $100/month, at $25,000 per space cost, they’re only getting 4.8% annual return GROSS. Add in taxes (about 2.5%) and management and it’s probably a loss. If they get $5/day, 90% full, for the spaces they get a 6.6% return GROSS… and it’s still probably a wash after other taxes and fees.

    To 3CDC, I’m sure they’re thinking one thing: how do we get as much money as we can for our residential and commercial space? And while being car-free is a dream for a lot of people, unless you have a job close by (or on a bus line), don’t do a lot of roaming around the city, and always fly or use Amtrak on vacation, it’s impossible for most of the residents and patrons they’re trying to capture to go car-less. Residents are going to be more likely to rent or buy if there’s parking nearby, and businesses more often than not will NOT move in without parking for their consumers.

    Again, change the demand if you want to change the supply.

    Oh, and keep in mind zoning doesn’t equal demand. While the zoning code may call for a parking ratio of 2.5/1000 sf, 4/1000 is a lot closer to the norm for commercial space.

    • This is the problem, people assume this is from demand. It’s not. Walk into the Gateway Garage during non work week hours and check out how much of the garage is actually being used. Same for Washington Park Garage…what’s its normal usage during non special events at the park or Music Hall.

      This is a Walmart style approach where parking capacities are based on absolute peak demands, not normal demands. Walmart shouldn’t be building parking lots to accommodate for the one day out of the year that they use 90% of the spaces, and developers in OTR shouldn’t be putting the financial costs of structured parking on the average resident buying a condo there, or the taxpayer who is provided funds for the project through its many grants/loans.

    • Good arguement for parking maximum requirements. Cincinnati needs to ask itself if they want to continue requiring buildings to provide their own parking on site