Pat Rice said he’s heard of Downtown Boise restaurant workers who’d rather park in a metered spot and risk a ticket than deal with the inconvenience of searching for a space to legally park their cars for several hours.
“My impression is they are not trying to scam anybody,” Rice said. “They view it as a cost of doing business or a cost of work, I guess.”
Rice is executive director of the Greater Boise Auditorium District, an organization that employs dozens of full- and part-time workers who staff conventions and other events at Boise Centre, a venue on The Grove Plaza. He said it’s getting harder and harder for those employees, like the restaurant workers, to find convenient parking.
“They’re getting very creative,” Rice said. “And a lot of them are, even in the weather, trying to ride their bikes. There are some that are turning to the bus more. Or they’re finding parking eight, nine, 10 blocks away somewhere in the neighborhoods or whatever.”
As Downtown Boise grows up, finding parking spaces is getting harder. In large part, this is due to demand. Since 2012, a bevy of big construction projects has brought in thousands of construction workers, most of whom drive Downtown from somewhere else.
We knew it was coming. It wasn’t a matter of if. It was just a matter of when.
Greater Boise Auditorium executive director Pat Rice on Downtown’s tightening supply of parking
Once the projects are complete, the construction workers go away, but people who have jobs in the new buildings partially replace their numbers. Most of them need parking places, too.
Supply, of course, is the other side of the equation. Often, new buildings take up land that was previously vacant and used as parking lots. That reduces the parking supply.
JUST A FEW BLOCKS, RIGHT?
A tighter supply of parking Downtown is largely a good problem.
Most people would prefer the inconvenience to the Great Recession, which just a few years ago stripped Idaho’s most urban area of jobs, property value and almost all construction activity.
These days, between 11 a.m. and noon on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, two of six parking garages belonging to Boise’s urban renewal agency, Capital City Development Corporation, often fill up, executive director John Brunelle said.
That’s good for Downtown restaurants and shops. But it’s still a nuisance, and it’s affecting Downtown parkers in real ways.
A year ago, the renewal agency raised its rates for monthly parking passes in the garages. Before the increase, all monthly passes were $100. Now, they’re $135 in the Eastman and Capitol Terrace garages — the two most popular — and $120 in the other four. The increase was the first rate change since 2008, Brunelle said.
Since then, the agency has sold an additional 400 monthly passes for garage spots, bringing the total to 1,900. All of them sold out quickly, Brunelle said. About 350 names are now on a waiting list for monthly passes, and the agency is considering another rate increase, Brunelle said.
Parking prices are a balancing act for CCDC, whose mission is to spur economic development. Make the prices too low, and you encourage the one-car-per-person scenario that’s already making parking spaces scarce. Make prices too high and you’ll squeeze out all but the well-heeled customer.
“Trying to thread that needle is very difficult,” Brunelle said.
China, Seattle, San Francisco — all these places, they just keep widening the roads, but traffic is worse now than it was in the past.
Chase Erkins, Boise commercial real estate agent
Chase Erkins, a commercial real estate agent who works in the Hoff Building on the corner of 8th and Bannock streets, for the past year-and-a-half has rented a parking spot about a block north of his office. This winter, the lot changed hands. Worried that he’d lose his spot, Erkins said he gave it up and rented another one a few blocks farther away.
Then the first big snowstorm hit, and the difference between walking one block and walking a handful of blocks hit home. Erkins said the longer trip took him 10 to 12 minutes.
“That first day, walking from the lot to my office, I walked in and switched it back,” Erkins said.
How big of a difference can a few minutes’ walk really make? In Erkins’ case, a lot.
“I leave my office five to six times a day and go to my car in my profession,” he said. “And if I am losing 10 minutes each way, that’s taking a big chunk of my day.”
HOW MANY GARAGES?
More parking garages are in Downtown Boise’s future.
The urban renewal agency bought 89 public spaces in a parking garage that’s part of developer LocalConstruct’s 160-apartment building under construction on the west side of 5th Street between Myrtle and Broad streets.
The agency also bought 250 public spaces in a garage that developer Gardner Co. is building on the southwest corner of 11th and Front streets. That garage is part of a hotel-office-retail project.
We need more than just more car storage. We need more transit options.
CCDC Executive Director John Brunelle
LocalConstruct and Gardner are adding about 500 private spaces in their developments, despite the fact that Boise law requires LocalConstruct to provide no parking at all and a reduced number of spaces from Gardner.
Other Downtown developers, including Rafanelli and Nahas, which is building a hotel on the corner of 10th and Bannock streets, have shelled out a lot of money to offer their customers covered parking.
The renewal agency would like to work out deals with the owners of other private parking garages to allow the public to use at least some of their spaces during off-peak hours.
Together, these efforts should ease some of the parking strain Downtown. But covered car storage alone won’t solve the supply problem.
The sheer cost of building new parking garages — roughly $20,000 to $25,000 per space — is enough to discourage them. Then there’s the question of how viable they are long term.
“In a lot of the bigger cities, they’re starting to think about, already, how to build their parking garages now so that they can be adapted to be turned into something else in 20 to 30 years when we have automated vehicles that can park somewhere else,” Erkins said.
So what is the right way to handle Downtown’s shrinking parking supply?
People who do business Downtown, as well those who plan its future, say the best answer lies in a quiver of partial solutions. Besides more car slots, they say, Downtown Boise needs to offer better alternatives to driving.
In the short term, that means adding park-and-ride systems. One initiative is already underway.
About a year-and-a-half ago, representatives of the urban renewal agency, auditorium district, City Hall, Ada County Highway District, the Treasure Valley’s transit authority, Boise State University, Downtown Boise Association and other groups convened a series of meetings to discuss parking problems.
A plan emerged for a three-year solution that includes two circulating park-and-ride loops. Erkins, who participated in the planning effort, said the park-and-ride system’s organizers hope to start it up this summer.
Here’s how it would work: One loop operates from a parking site near the corner of Main Street and Whitewater Boulevard. People leave their cars, and every 10 minutes, a van comes and picks them up. The van works its way into Downtown, stopping at major destinations sprinkled around the core, including Idaho Power’s headquarters, the corner of 8th and Main streets, and St. Luke’s Boise Medical Center.
A second loop would run north and south from the area of Vista Road and Interstate 84.
Erkins said park-and-ride is a good Band-Aid, but we shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking it’s a long-term fix.
A better bicycle network also would encourage Downtown commuters to get out of their cars.
This upgrade, though gradual, also is underway. The highway district, prodded by the city, is in a multiyear process of adding bike lanes to Downtown streets.
Of course, bikes need parking spaces, too, albeit much smaller ones. Rice, the auditorium district’s executive director, said his employees are asking about bike storage because so many have had their rides stolen.
A third partial solution is a more attractive public transportation system. This is likely to be the most expensive and politically fraught option. Boiseans have argued over transit for years.
Some people say the best approach would be to ramp up bus service with expanded hours of operation and more vehicles. Others say Boise should bite the bullet on a roughly $111 million rail-based system for Downtown.
Arguments in favor of the train have largely focused on its potential to boost property values near a rail line and make Downtown a more attractive place to live, work and visit.
City spokesman Mike Journee said a thinning supply of parking is another indication that Boise needs better public transportation, whatever vehicle it rides on.
“For someone who works Downtown and doesn’t live close enough to walk or bike and can’t afford a car, and gets off of work at 10 o’clock or 11 o’clock or 2 o’clock in the morning, public transportation isn’t a real transportation choice for them in this town right now,” Journee said. “Having a public transit system with extended hours that is convenient and safe for everybody — those are the kinds of things that we need to work on, and unfortunately we don’t have funding mechanisms and other things to do that.”
Downtown Boise parking by the numbers
Public parking spaces make up a small percentage of Downtown’s total. Private garages and surface lots account for the majority, according to a recent study done on behalf of Capital City Development Corporation.
Total spaces in Downtown Boise: 17,000
Public garage spaces: 2,567
Total on-street spaces (metered): 1,300
Another partial parking solution?
Boise’s urban renewal agency is considering discounted evening and weekend passes for its parking garages, executive director John Brunelle said.
These passes, which might cost around $30 per month, could be attractive to people who have nighttime jobs in Downtown bars and other businesses, or to people who spend a lot of time in those businesses.
Someday, Brunelle said, Downtown businesses might even alter working hours so employees can find parking more easily — not to mention the benefit of avoiding rush-hour traffic.