Target 8:Parking Garage Vacancy

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COLUMBIA - Elton Fay sees a problem with the new parking garage on 5th and Walnut.

"I see lots of parking spaces. Nobody parking in them," Fay said.

He owns a law office next door to the garage, so he attended initial meetings about building it.

"At those meetings they showed us plans for what I would consider a reasonable-sized parking garage," Fay said.

In 2001, Columbia commissioned a transportation consultant, Transystems Corporation, to evaluate the need for additional parking downtown. Transystems' final recommendation was to add 300 spaces north of Broadway to "meet projected future demands" and "aid in accommodating special events."

This would increase the number of empty spaces downtown during peak times and leave an "excess available to handle special events. But the garage the city eventually built has 703 spaces, more than double Transystems' recommendation. The cost--with interest--will be $21 million. The city won't pay it off in full until 2034.

"It makes it easy to say where our office is. We just say look at the huge garage downtown that doesn't look like it is supposed to be there. We are right west of there," Tony St. Romaine, Assistant City Manager, said.

St. Romaine has been the Assistant City Manager since 2006, long before construction on the garage began. He was surprised to learn the amount of spaces in the garage.

St. Romaine: "I don't think that garage has 700 spaces in it. Does it?"
KOMU: "It has 703 spaces."
St. Romaine: "Is it 703 spaces?"
KOMU: "703 spaces."
St. Romaine: "You know I am not familiar with the study."

The 703 spaces are divided by who can use them and for what cost. Of those, 520, called permit spaces, are for rent by anyone who wants to pay $50 to $60 a month. Right now, 139 of those spaces, or about 27%, are occupied. Of those, 36 are city vehicles parked on the roof. City employees use 59 more spaces, but get to park for free as part of their benefits package. Eight additional people transferred from other garages. So, the number of new monthly parking customers for the city thanks to this garage is...36.

"I personally think the 5th and Walnut parking garage was overbuilt. I think had it been a 300 space garage you wouldn't be interviewing me right now," Columbia Mayor Bob McDavid said.

McDavid was elected after the decision to construct the 5th and Walnut parking garage was made.

"There were five members of the city council, including myself, that were not a part of that decision process. I believe that the process was flawed. We committed $16 million to a garage that is going to lose money for some time," McDavid said.

So who is responsible for the fact that the garage is more than double the recommendation? Elton Fay blames John Glascock, Public Works Director, for the size of the garage. That would be enough in most places to cause somebody to lose their job, over a mistake like this one. And that's what it is, a mistake. But the mayor says it's too soon to judge failure--or success.

"You know if we end up with five high-rise office buildings surrounding that 5th and Walnut garage, the people that made the decision will look brilliant. If, however, it continues to stand solitary and alone monopolizing the skyline in 20 years, they won't look so good." McDavid said. "Right now I think a lot of people are doubting whether those spaces will ever fill up. But I think if you look at past history of all the other garages that we have built downtown as future development comes there is going to be additional need for parking."

Future needs that might be met by another parking garage to be built on Short Street.