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EDITORIAL: Eight-Point Plan for Fixing Cincinnati’s Broken Parking System

Cincinnati Parking Meter
Broken and malfunctioning meters plague Cincinnati’s parking system. Photograph by Randy Simes for UrbanCincy.

We are continuing to look at opportunities inside City Hall that could help alleviate Cincinnati’s budget and pension liabilities, while also maintaining and improving service delivery.

In addition to the waste collection reforms that include a shift to a Pay As You Throw system, we will be making other specific policy recommendations that we feel will improve the quality of service delivery while also improving the City’s finances – ultimately working toward a long-term, structurally balanced budget.

Back in June 2010, UrbanCincy examined the finances of the city’s parking system. In this analysis, and comparison with cities from around the country, we discovered a broken system that was not performing the functions it needed to perform, and was not financially solvent.

As a result, we recommended a seven-year lease of all 5,700 of the city’s on-street parking meters. We estimated that such a deal could yield just over $3 million in annual payments, while also ridding the city of the associated financial liabilities. We did not estimate what an upfront payment could be due to the infinite number of variables that could affect that.

While much has changed politically since that time, the facts remain the same. Cincinnati’s parking system is broken, and is in need of immediate upgrades and reforms.

One of the first actions by the newly elected Mayor John Cranley (D), however, was to halt the signed Parking Lease & Modernization agreement, executed by former City Manager Milton Dohoney, which was structured to solve these exact problems. Under that deal the City would have leased four parking garages, one parking lot and all of the City’s on-street parking meters to the Port of Greater Cincinnati Development Authority.

The Port then agreed to work with Xerox to manage the system and implement comprehensive upgrades to the deteriorating and outdated system. This would have included electronic parking meters that accept credit cards, real-time parking availability data systems and the rehabilitation of existing lots and garages.

The deal would have also provided the City of Cincinnati with an upfront payment of $85 million, generated approximately $3 million in annual installment payments over the life of the agreement, and guaranteed approximately $98 million in capital investments into the system. For better or worse, that agreement has been jeopardized and we are essentially back at square one.

So where and what exactly is square one?

The City has been experiencing declining revenues from its parking assets for several years now. Revenue collections peaked years ago, but have been declining recently due to inadequate enforcement and the parking system’s poor state of repair. These assets require constant and expensive maintenance and upgrades, so virtually all of the money generated by the Parking System is spent maintaining the Parking System.

This is important. The Parking System does not generate any excess revenue for the city to use on other basic services.

In most years the Parking System is revenue neutral, meaning that the revenues it generates cover its expenses. This is acceptable, unless you are deferring maintenance costs in order to make the numbers match. This has been the case in Cincinnati for years, and has left the Parking System in terrible condition.

The situation has gotten worse in recent years as council has worked to balance the budget without laying off employees. In both 2010 and 2011, the city spent considerably more on the Parking System than it collected in an effort to keep it up to snuff. We are talking $3.6 million more in 2010 and $1.1 million more in 2011. This stopped in 2012 when the city cut its annual investments in the Parking System by several million dollars.

Cincinnati's Broken Parking System

For reference, investments in the Parking System today are approximately 38% lower than they were when the City invested $13.3 million into the Parking System in 2010. Over that same period, the parking fund balance has dropped from $12.5 million to $7.8 million.

Simply put: revenues are down, maintenance is being deferred and the parking fund is being depleted. This is not sustainable.

The recent proposal from the Cranley Administration, which was immediately and thoroughly rejected by just about everyone except five council members, does not address what the problems are, and therefore does not propose appropriate solutions for those problems.

The situation and trajectory is dire and UrbanCincy recommends that the City of Cincinnati move forward with upgrades to its Parking System immediately. Absent the previously agreed upon Parking Lease & Modernization deal or some other public-private partnership; here is how we suggest doing so:

  1. Issue bonds to upgrade all parking meters in the city to use the latest electronic payment collection and occupancy tracking technology. This would include pay-by-phone capabilities.
  2. Utilize the new technology to implement variable pricing structures that reflect real-time market demand. If there is a Bengals game downtown and meters near the stadium are packed, then the rates on those meters would increase, while meters further away would maintain lower rates. In neighborhood business districts the same would be true. When demand is high so should be prices. When demand is low, prices should drop accordingly to make it a more attractive option for those visiting our neighborhood business districts.
  3. Release a new application, website and text alert system that notifies drivers of parking space availability and informs them of the associated rates.
  4. Sell the city-owned parking lot at Third Street and Central Avenue so that it can be repurposed into a tax-producing property.
  5. Create a special lease agreement for city-owned parking garages and lots, so that the separate authority could manage advertising at these locations. The Ohio Revised Code currently does not grant cities authority to sell advertising in such a manner, but not allowing for advertisements is unnecessarily cutting off much-needed revenue. Let’s get creative so that we can maximize revenues without burdening our residents, businesses or visitors.
  6. Tear down the Garfield Garage, which is in greatest need of repair, and market the site to developers interested in building on it. Such a development agreement could include the provision of the same or greater number of parking spaces to be replaced – similar to the deal signed for the new residential tower to be built at Fourth and Race Streets in the place of the Pogue’s Garage. This will free the city from a major capital expense that would further deplete the parking fund in the near future.
  7. Tear down the Seventh & Sycamore Garage, which is the only thing blocking the construction of a $14.2 million, 115-room hotel and 725-space garage from being built in its place. The existing 450-space garage is also in poor condition and its removal would be another major liability coming off the City’s books.
  8. Conduct a citywide study to determine appropriate adjustments to the hours of operation for on-street parking meters on a neighborhood-by-neighborhood level.

Following through on these eight recommendations will allow the city to maintain ownership and control of its Parking System while also allowing it to make the necessary upgrades and improve the balance sheets for this portion of the budget. These changes will make the Parking System a revenue generating asset not just in rhetoric, but in reality.

The increased revenues will allow for the City to replenish the parking fund, make its upgrades and take additional revenue and use it to support other essential but non-revenue generating public services.

Month in Review

Month in Review – August 2013

During the month of August, UrbanCincy covered several new developments and events in the city’s urban core. We also published two editorials that generated much response from our readers and the local community. Our  top 5 most popular stories for August 2013 were:

    1. Final Designs Revealed for $125M Dunnhumby Centre Tower
      The long-awaited renderings for the Dunnhumby Centre at Fifth and Race have been released.
    2. It’s Time to Consolidate Local Governments in Hamilton County
      This editorial by Randy Simes has generated over 100 comments on UrbanCincy. Randy was also invited onto 700 WLW to discuss the idea with Scott Sloan, and the Cincinnati Business Courier also provided their own analysis of the idea.
    3. Over-the-Rhine Impresses More Than 30,000 Spectators for LumenoCity
      Paige Malott and John Yung provide photos from the event that attracted over 30,000 visitors to Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine neighborhood.
    4. Cincinnati Eliminates Center City Parking Requirements, Neighborhoods Next
      Randy Simes analyses the city’s move to deregulate parking within the urban core.
    5. Greg Landsman: Riding the Cincinnati Streetcar to Success
      In this editorial, City Council candidate Greg Landsman explains why he supports the Streetcar and why it should be extended to Uptown.


Development News Politics Transportation

Cincinnati Eliminates Center City Parking Requirements, Neighborhoods Next

Cincinnati Mayor Mark Mallory (D) has approved an amendment to the city’s zoning code that eliminates parking requirements for many residential developments, and substantially reduces them for others.

The ordinance, signed on August 7, tosses out the city’s existing minimum parking requirements within the zoning code’s Downtown Development Overlay Districts, which cover the central business district and historic Over-the-Rhine.

Under the new regulations any residential development with 20 or fewer housing units would not have to provide any parking, while those with more than 20 units would have to provide .75 spaces per housing unit above 20. That means a development with 32 housing units would only need to provide nine parking spaces.

Central Riverfront Garage
Thousands of parking spaces sit largely empty outside of business hours and game days. Photograph by Jake Mecklenborg for UrbanCincy.

In April 2012, just weeks after UrbanCincy laid the groundwork for reforming the city’s parking policies, Vice Mayor Roxanne Qualls (C) and Councilmembers Yyvette Simpson (D), Wendall Young (D), Cecil Thomas (D), Chris Seelbach (D), and Laure Quinlivan (D) signed a motion urging the removal of all parking requirements in the central business district and Over-the-Rhine.

While the newly approved ordinance does not go quite that far, its proponents believe it is a step in the right direction.

“The goal of the ordinance is to encourage development in the urban core by permitting developers to determine their own parking needs for downtown developments,” explained Councilwoman Simpson, who is vice chair of council’s Livable Communities Committee. “I firmly believe that the market will work to meet parking demands better than government minimum parking requirements.”

According to Victoria Transport Policy Institute, individual parking spaces add anywhere from $10,000 to $25,000 to the cost of a development, and city council believes that by eliminating those mandates that they will make the center city an even more attractive place for private investment.

Mercer Garage
The Mercer Garage in historic Over-the-Rhine is visible from above in May 2013. Photograph by Jake Mecklenborg for UrbanCincy.

The discussion about parking mandates in the center city has been ongoing for years, and has taken on more prominence as private real estate investment in Over-the-Rhine has surged. UrbanCincy specifically called into question the size of the Mercer Commons parking garage in mid-2012.

The work of eliminating parking requirements, however, may not be finished.

The approved ordinance also calls for the “deregulation of minimum parking requirements in other neighborhoods through the establishment of Urban Parking Overlay Districts in areas to be determined by Council.”

If and when city council decides to move forward with establishing new Urban Parking Overlay Districts, there would be no parking requirements for any use other than residential developments greater than 20 dwelling units. This is slightly different than the modification to the Downtown Development Overlay Districts since they still require some minimal parking requirements for office uses.

One of the earliest beneficiaries of the new standards might be the renovation of 906 Main Street, which would not need to provide any parking spaces under the new standards. The $400,000 project will transform the largely vacant structure into 20 apartments above 6,705 square feet of street-level retail.

The new ordinance took effective immediately.

“This ordinance will encourage private investment by reducing the amount of government regulation,” Simpson continued. “This also encourages a walkable, pedestrian-friendly urban core, which is more attractive to residents and visitors.”

Development News Politics Transportation

Where would they all park?

Metro, the non-profit that operates Cincinnati’s bus system, is facing a budget deficit of $16 million in 2010. To preempt this crisis, officials in December elected to reduce service on virtually every route, and eliminate some routes entirely (new schedules). Many Cincinnatians values Metro’s presence because it is a critical service for residents and visitors alike, but some remain hard to convince.

Metro’s important role in Cincinnati goes beyond the obvious. For example, there simply is not enough parking downtown to eliminate bus service. If Cincinnati were to eliminate Metro entirely, the city would need 127 acres of additional parking.

According to Carter Dawson, the group that is managing The Banks development on the riverfront, 85,000 people work in downtown Cincinnati, and according to Metro, 20 percent of them commute using the bus. Therefore, 17,000 people ride to bus downtown to work each day. The amount of space needed for each parking space is estimated at 325 square feet after factoring in space needed for access lanes. As a result, Cincinnati would need to add more than 5.5 million square feet of additional parking space, or about 127 acres.

The land area bounded by 3rd Street, Race Street, Central Parkway, and Sycamore Street is about 130 acres (map created here).

Cincinnati simply cannot afford to throw away 127 acres of prime real estate. Not only does downtown hold some of the region’s most lucrative businesses that would have to go elsewhere, but the tax revenue lost by this displacement would be catastrophic as well. In addition, roadways would need to be expanded to accommodate the increased traffic, stealing even more valuable downtown space. Residents would also be displaced, taking with them the income tax revenue on which the city relies. Cincinnati cannot afford to eliminate Metro. Instead, policymakers ought to be seeking ways to bolster this community asset.

Development News Politics Transportation

The Urban Parking Paradox and the Need for Regulation

As previously discussed, providing the necessary parking to meet local government regulations can be both costly in terms of finances and social impacts to the immediate neighborhood in which the parking is built. The question should be asked about whether parking should be regulated at all in terms of how much should be provided.

In the Central Business District and historic neighborhood of Over-the-Rhine there is roughly 92 acres of surface parking lots. To put this into real terms, the amount of surface parking lots present in our urban core is nearly equal to the entire size of Burnet Woods (89 acres).

The Gateway Quarter parking garage sits empty on a typical Saturday afternoon (left), while much of the on-street parking remains readily available (right) for those looking to shop in the rejuvenated district of Over-the-Rhine.

Many of the commonly used calculations for parking requirements have been seen as arbitrarily derived. One reason this is thought to be the case is because of the limitless variables presented in each particular situation. In an area with high transit ridership and lots of pedestrian activity there should be a lesser requirement for parking than an area that is solely dependent on the automobile. This is reflected in the zoning code to a certain extent, but what would happen if the regulation disappeared completely?

No Regulation:
Parking is an amenity, not infrastructure, and should be treated as such. Government should not be regulating how many square feet of closet space there should be in each dwelling unit, nor should it be regulating how many parking spaces need to be provided for retail and office development. This is something a private developer should know based on their client demands.

If a developer feels that they can successfully renovate a handful of historic rowhouses along Race Street in Over-the-Rhine and provide zero parking spaces, then that should be their risk (or reward). Similarly, if a developer feels that they need X number of parking spaces for their new office tower in the Central Business District, then that too should be up to them. The potential problem with this approach is not providing too little parking, but rather too much.

The areas in black indicate the 92 acres of surface parking located throughout Cincinnati’s Central Business District (left) and the historic Over-the-Rhine neighborhood (right).

Parking Maximums:
Since some might say that no parking regulation whatsoever might allow the market to run wild and produce unsustainable results. In that case the lack of any regulation could be replaced by a parking maximum, or a cap. For Cincinnati this would make most sense in places already developed and built in a way not suitable for parking facilities. This would allow for developers to create the parking they feel is needed up to a certain extent deemed appropriate by the local government.

From there policy makers could decide whether it is in their best interests to allow flexibility with contingencies, or not. For example, a developer could exceed the parking cap if the overage was built with pervious paving, that the additional parking be shared, or if the developer paid into a fund that would then help offset the costs of other infrastructure improvements needed in the affected area.

In a nutshell though this would allow for developers, no matter how big or small, to make the decision of how much parking they actually need with regulation limiting their actions. This would prevent big box retailers from over-parking their sites and thus reduce the amount of impervious surfaces, loss of urban fabric, and other negative externalities.

Both scenarios presented above could be addressed by removing minimum parking requirements. This would enable small businesses and investors to succeed without the costly parking mandates while also not adding additional regulations through maximum parking specifications that would experience similar issues as minimum parking requirement regulations.

But in either case, the above scenarios seem to be better than the current urban parking policies currently used in Cincinnati and widespread across the United States. Both scenarios would empower small businesses and investors while also maintaining a free market system. Both situations would demand less staff time to oversee and thus reduce costs and/or improve service levels at the local government level.