Garrahy parking garage seen as lure for development

Contrary to conventional wisdom, things may be looking up for the future of Providence’s former Interstate 195 lands.
At least five organizations have confirmed making formal bids to build on the 19 developable acres freed by the removal of the highway.
One of them, a plan by Ocean State Angels and Cambridge Biolabs to build a life science accelerator at the corner of Richmond and Clifford Streets, is just the kind of “Knowledge District” concept envisioned by state leaders when they created the I-195 Redevelopment District Commission in 2012.
And perhaps even more favorable for commissioners, the General Assembly last week approved the construction of a $45 million, seven-level parking garage explicitly intended to boost interest in the land.
The proposed 1,250-space garage adjacent to the Garrahy Judicial Complex was one of the more controversial elements in a relatively drama-free state budget passed by the General Assembly, with eight lawmakers voting against the article containing garage funding.
Some Republicans objected to government involvement in real estate development, while some progressives, inside and outside of the legislature, would rather the money be spent on mass transit or something greener than automobile infrastructure.
Plans to build a parking garage on what is now a surface parking lot on the southwest side of the Garrahy building – between Friendship, Clifford and Richmond Streets – have a long history going back to the courthouse’s creation.
As recently as 2008, state lawmakers shot down a proposal backed by the Providence Foundation to build a multistory garage there. Three years later, the privately owned Outlet Garage on nearby Pine Street was razed, raising questions about parking demand in the neighborhood.
Yet the former highway lands now marketed as The Link, which the state borrowed $42 million to rebuild and prepare for development, have provided new impetus for the project. The budget article authorizing financing for the parking garage includes two paragraphs about The Link and none about court employees or visitors.
Still, the idea that state-employee parking, an enduringly powerful force on Smith Hill, is driving the project hasn’t completely gone away.
The study commissioned by the General Assembly and released this year to support the viability of the garage does nothing to combat that perception.
Assembled from findings from four consulting firms, the study notes that 530 court-related state employees have a contractual right to free parking. It says 210 of them park at the existing surface lot and 320 park at off-site locations that cost the state $32,000 per month.
Over the first decade of use, the court employees would use 41 percent of the garage’s space but generate only 13 percent of revenue, the study notes.
It also estimates that of the 2,500 people per day who visit the courthouse, 660 of them will choose to park in the new garage when it opens during the “early-bird” weekday crunch time before noon.
If so, that could leave only 60 or so spaces during the morning rush for new Link office users.
Including residential development, the study estimates that fully built-out Link parcels would generate between 2,800 and 3,300 new vehicle trips per day.
But I-195 Commission Chairman Colin Kane, also a member of the study committee that recommended the garage, said he would not have supported it if it would be filled only with court parkers.
All of the court employees the state provides parking for do not necessarily need to park in the new garage, he said, and court-visitor parking will be much more dynamic than the study might indicate.
“This is not being built for court employees,” Kane said. “Just because the court is obligated to pay for parking of a certain number of employees does not mean that many will be there at any one time.”
Still, Kane acknowledges the Garrahy garage itself will not come close to meeting all the parking needs of the Link. “Garrahy will not solve the parking requirement for 3-million-square-feet of building – hopefully we will be at the table again talking about other garages,” Kane said.
“Parking is not supported in the building geometry of the Link, so without off-site there is no vertical construction,” he added. “In every community, parking is a municipal obligation, just like public transportation. The state created garages at [Providence Place] mall and the Convention Center. Absent that, there is no downtown.”
Timothy Ehrlich, co-founder of Ocean State Angels, said the life science accelerator would not include on-site parking and, asked about the Garrahy garage, said only that his team was “exploring all possible parking options.”
A key element of the parking-garage plan is that, although $45 million in state borrowing will finance construction, proponents expect revenue generated by the garage to pay off that debt and eventually leave the taxpayers with an asset.
The fact that the project will generate revenue, from parking receipts, to help pay back the bonds is what allowed the state to finance the garage within the budget without having to go to voters for approval of general-obligation bonds.
Voters will get an opportunity to pass judgment on additional borrowing connected with the garage, the $35 million requested to pay for new R.I. Public Transit Authority bus hubs at Garrahy and the Providence Train Station, in November.
With the budget approved, Richard Licht, director of the R.I. Department of Administration, said the next step would be for the Convention Center Authority to use $500,000 from the R.I. Capital Plan Fund, to design the garage.
Although providing a hub for R.I. Public Transit Authority buses has been a selling point of the garage, Licht said the hubs don’t necessarily have to be located there. A spot further south is also being looked at, he said. The Convention Center Authority was chosen to issue the Garrahy debt and operate the Garrahy garage, likely through a subcontractor, because it already does so at the Convention Center, Licht said.
The state makes up the difference between what the Convention Center Authority owes in debt and how much it generates in revenue. In fiscal 2014 the Convention Center Authority received $1.1 million in the revised state budget, an amount that should increase with the Garrahy garage payments.
According to the Garrahy study, debt service on the garage bonds would be roughly $2.6 million per year over 25 years and operating expenses over the first decade would average $758,000 per year.
Those projections have the garage losing approximately $640,000 over the first three years of operation but making $1.1 million net income by year 10.
The most recent multilevel parking garage to be built in Providence was Johnson & Wales University’s 742-space garage on Richmond Street, which opened in January.
The Johnson & Wales garage cost $21.5 million, according to JWU spokeswoman Lisa Pelosi, which comes out to $29,000 per space, compared to $31,250 per space expected for Garrahy.
Of course, the Garrahy will also include 13,800 square feet of ground-floor retail space and the more levels a garage has the larger the per-space cost.
Licht said only the 210 court employees parking in the current Garrahy surface lot would definitely be in the new garage, but it is likely a number of those now parking off-site would use it.
Although the I-195 Commission does not have any authority over the garage, Licht anticipates that the commission would be able to negotiate deals for blocks of spaces with the Convention Center for Link companies.
“The governor’s reasoning for putting this in the budget is to provide infrastructure for the I-195 land,” Licht said. “Colin Kane said parking is an essential part of infrastructure for marketing. That is motivating this, not to provide parking for state employees.” •

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