Spokane Journal of Business

The core of downtown Spokane’s parking woes

Critics says study drew wide circle, paints rosy picture when issues persist

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A recent downtown parking study doesn’t acknowledge the need for a greater concentration of parking in the city’s core, observers say. 

But even those who were somewhat critical of the study’s assessment of parking needs downtown aren’t in complete agreement on the best solutions moving forward. 

The city of Spokane spent $187,000 on a downtown parking study released in February that makes several recommendations aimed at mitigating demand for more parking, including raising meter rates. The Downtown Spokane Partnership brought together a panel of five local experts to discuss the study, parking issues, and potential solutions on Tuesday, April 16, at the Montvale Event Center.

The study, which is available on the city of Spokane website, was conducted by Seattle-based Nelson\Nygaard Consulting Associates Inc. The team of consultants produced 20 recommendations for strategies that could maximize use of existing downtown parking. 

“They recommend a strategy that’s really focused on increasing the overall use rather than building new supply,” says Andrew Rolwes, vice president of public policy and parking for the Downtown Spokane Partnership. “It’s important to qualify that by saying it’s not recommending against the development of parking garages, it’s simply saying that given the city’s resources and allotment of time, the city can make the most of focusing on existing parking stock and making that more efficient than it is currently.”

The study looked at parking in an area bounded roughly by Boone Avenue, Rockwood Boulevard, Maple Street, and Cowley Street, which includes almost 37,000 parking spaces.

The most heavily-used parking areas were the downtown core and the hospital district. Peak use of those areas saw vehicles occupying more than 70% of capacity, Rolwes says, which is below the industry standard of 85% for a parking facility at full use. In other words, technically, there’s plenty of parking downtown.

Some panelists contend the study scrutinizes too large of an area and doesn’t consider the needs of people who live and work downtown.

“To some degree, it misses the point of what Spokane needs,” asserts Roy Koegen, partner with Spokane law firm Kutak Rock LLP. “When we were looking at office space, one of our criteria was whether we have parking for our employees. It’s just not available. I think a parking garage to keep businesses downtown is essential.”

Melissa Verwest, technical sales engineer at Spokane Valley-based Oldcastle Infrastructure, says that the study didn’t look deeply enough into the option of building a parking garage downtown.

“It was just kind of glazed over, mainly because they didn’t think that was a viable option right now, or you need the private investors,” Verwest asserts. “Whatever the reasons were, they were looking at other alternatives. The study lacked a little bit of continuity with impressions of what the people working downtown and living downtown are actually faced with.”

The study says the industry average cost of parking garages is about $20,000 per stall. Panelists disagreed on whether a downtown parking garage would be financially feasible for the city to construct and operate.

Dan Geiger, regional vice president of Diamond Parking, says, “As a company that owns land and knows how to operate a parking garage, it doesn’t make sense to do it because the economics aren’t there.”

Verwest contends, however, a garage could be more viable than the study assumes, especially if precast concrete is used in construction.

“I believe here you probably can do it for less than $15,000 a stall,” Verwest says. “I think it’s a solution we should be looking at.”

Gavin Cooley, chief financial officer of the city of Spokane, says there may be ways for the city to get subsidies for a parking garage, or to convince the state Legislature to funnel some funding into such a project.

There also are options that don’t involve funding through the city or the state, Cooley adds.

“The mechanism for doing something with downtown parking might indeed be a downtown public development authority,” Cooley says, noting the success of the West Plains and University District PDAs.

The study found that a substantial price gap exists between on-street and off-street parking. Off-street parking in the downtown core is more than twice as expensive per hour as on-street parking, with an average of $1.70 per hour for off-street parking, versus an average of 87 cents per hour for on-street parking.

Geiger agreed with the study’s assessment of parking pricing.

“The spaces on street that the city of Spokane owns are priced too low for how valuable they are,” he asserts. “The spaces in front of River Park Square, for example, should probably be the most expensive spaces around. In my experience, people will pay to park as long as it’s convenient and they can get a space.”

The study recommends tiered pricing: “premium” priced meters in the downtown core, and “value” meters in the rest of downtown. Under the proposal, meters downtown would cost between 40 cents and $1.20 per hour, depending on meter time limits.  

Increasing meter prices might not be a popular move, but it might be necessary, the panelists agree.

“It’s not an easy or happy answer, but it is going to cause people to make the decision to move into off-street parking facilities,” Rolwes asserts. “It gets us that much closer on a pro forma that works for a garage.”

Verwest says an increase in meter prices downtown likely would encourage people to take advantage of other methods of transportation, but that the study didn’t consider the complexity or safety implications of those methods, especially bicycling.

“If we are going to increase prices, we need to look at how can we make alternative modes more friendly as well,” Verwest says.

The study recommended adding and expanding bike lanes, as well as creating safe bicycle parking options.

“Being a bike commuter for many years, I was very fortunate that my company had a place to put my bike; I’m not quite sure I would have done that if I had to leave it outside,” Verwest says. “The bike lanes are labelled, but it’s really only in the core, so coming from one location and going to another, you take your life in your own hands in trying to figure it out.”

One of the consequences of the current prices of downtown meters, the study asserts, is that drivers are sometimes willing to risk a $15 parking ticket rather than pay for a full day of parking.

Geiger contends, “For $15, people don’t have an incentive to pay the parking if it’s going to cost them $12 or $13 all day to park at a meter. There’s not really an incentive to pay in the first place.”

Cooley says the city already is working on repricing parking citations.

The study also advocates for unifying parking information under one digital platform, aided by as much information as private operators, like Diamond Parking, would be comfortable with contributing. Rolwes says information about parking currently is spread across several digital platforms, not all of which are kept up to date.

“The study is actually pretty reasonable on that front,” Rolwes asserts. “It’s going to take a year or two to get there, but it’s eminently feasible.”

Nearly 10% of people surveyed by the authors of the parking study walk, bike, or take transit. As the portion of the population living and working in downtown grows, public transportation will be increasingly important, the study says.

Brandon Rapez-Betty, Spokane Transit Authority spokesman, says, “When I first dove into this study, what I saw was a zero-sum game of parking. If one car is in a stall, another car can’t be in the same stall. Transit’s best strategy in that game, our role, is to help people get out of the game if they want to. We can do that best by improving service.”

Virginia Thomas
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Reporter Virginia Thomas has worked at the Journal since 2017 and covers the banking and finance industries. As a reporter, she loves learning about Spokane's many growing industries. She enjoys travelling with her husband, snuggling with her cats, and cross stitching.

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