Commissioner Shelli Freeland Eddie argues that a phased-in meter program would have been preferable
With two divided votes, the Sarasota City Commission has moved forward with a plan to assess property owners in the Commercial Tourist District on St. Armands to help finance a $15-million parking garage in the shopping district.
On a 3-2 vote May 16 — with Commissioners Shelli Freeland Eddie and Susan Chapman in the minority — the board also approved the issuance of $17.5 million in bonds to cover the initial expense of the structure on North Adams Lane, plus the burying of overhead electrical transmission lines from the Coon Key Bridge to North Washington Drive; signage in the general vicinity of the paid parking area; and the installation of median hard curb end caps.
The construction estimate for the garage is $14,060,865. During the commission’s regular meeting on March 21, the timeline presented by staff called for the Guaranteed Maximum Price for the project to be presented to the board in October 2017, with construction to commence in January 2018 and be completed in December 2018.
The assessments the commission approved on a second reading on May 16 will raise $260,000 per year for a total of $5.2 million over 20 years. The average annual debt service for the project will be $1,292,790, for a total of $26,179,000 over 20 years. Revenue generated by a paid parking program on St. Armands is expected to bring in $20,979,000 for that period. A memo provided to the board as background for the agenda item explained that the approximately 521 spaces in the garage will account for 35 percent of total available city parking spaces in the Commercial Tourist District.
Plans call for the bonds to be issued in October 2017.
Commissioner Liz Alpert made the motion on May 16 to move forward with the resolution governing the assessments for the parking garage, with Vice Mayor Suzanne Atwell seconding it. Chapman and Mayor Willie Shaw joined them in a 4-1 vote approving it.
Explaining her “No” vote, Freeland Eddie said that while she is not opposed to charging for parking, she believes it would have been more appropriate for the board to phase in the program, to make certain it would raise the amount of money staff has projected.
As for the bond resolution: “We can’t change the amount of the bond,” Freeland Eddie pointed out, and the commissioners have agreed not to increase the special assessment on property owners. If the paid parking program fails to bring in sufficient revenue, she added, “then other capital improvement projects will suffer for an extended period of time because we will have to make some tough decisions about how we’re going to have to pay for the garage.”
“I’m thinking $58,000 per parking space is very high [for the garage],” Chapman said in opposing the bond resolution.
Alpert told her colleagues that a one-year trial paid parking program is “not a bad idea.” Nonetheless, she continued, merchants, residents and landowners on St. Armands “have been working for years to make this happen.” Moreover, she said, after the garage has been completed, it will cost only 50 cents an hour to park in it. “So you can be there for five hours at $2.50,” she noted, and other areas in the vicinity of the Circle will not have meters.
Atwell referenced public comments opposing the garage project: “Yes, a lot of decisions we make hold somewhat of a risk, but if we didn’t [make them], we’d never get anything done up here.”
The parking fees will be $1.50 per hour for the area designated as the “core”; $1 for perimeter spaces; 75 cents for surface lot parking at 58 Fillmore Drive; and — as Alpert pointed out — 50 cents for the garage.
The hours for paid street parking will be 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Friday and 24 hours a day, Monday through Saturday, for the garage. The fees are not scheduled to go into effect until after the Certificate of Occupancy has been issued for the structure.
For and against
During public comments on May 16, Jeff Handler told the commissioners, “Twenty years is a long time” for the paid parking program to remain in effect. He asked that they install meters for a year to see how the public responds.
Representing three firms — Handler & Associates, Ringling Properties and Five Presidents — Handler said three of his tenants on St. Armands Circle are Sarasota-based businesses. Two are restaurants, he added. “They are all against this.”
Joseph Renco, who told the board he was reading comments prepared by Max Puyanic — who founded Commodore Realty in Sarasota — cautioned that parking meters on St. Armands could prove as much of a problem as they did several years ago in downtown Sarasota.
In regard to comments indicating that inadequate public notice was provided about the paid parking plans, Marty Rappaport, past chair of the Business Improvement District (BID) on St. Armands, explained that notices were mailed to all of the affected property owners. Additionally, he continued, in late January, a workshop was held on St. Armands for landlords, merchants and residents. “We had extensive conversations,” he said. At the end of that session, when he asked whether anyone wanted to vote against the garage and the assessments, he told the board, “there was absolutely no opposition. … It’s not just a couple of people in a back room making a decision.”
Before the commission voted on the bond resolution, Rappaport also pointed out that language in the document calls for 10 percent more revenue to be collected than would be needed to pay the annual debt service. As bond counsel Duane Draper had explained, too, Rappaport noted that if the parking revenue and assessments proved insufficient, the commission would be able to raise the parking rates.
An annual audit will ensure the city maintains that 10-percent reserve, Rapport added.
Furthermore, he said, unlike in the recent past, when the City Commission agreed to install parking meters in downtown Sarasota and later decided to remove them — after protests from business owners and the public — “the city will not put in paid parking [on St. Armands] and then take it away.” He also expects more revenue to come in over the years than the plan has projected, he told the board.
Diana Corrigan, executive director of the St. Armands Circle Association, said she also expects parking revenue to increase over the 20-year life of the bonds.
Handler disagreed, saying, “I’m more worried about what’s going to happen to my tenants when people don’t visit [St. Armands].” He referenced the “big fear” of business owners that people will stop staying on the Circle for extended periods of time because they will be worried about keeping the meters fed.
The potential problem is even more worrisome, he indicated, because “business is not like it was years ago … Merchants are struggling.”
On another positive point, Corrigan commended the decision to include in the project the expense of burying the power lines. “We’re on an island, and it’s an evacuation route,” she said, adding that the initiative is a means of providing protection to residents and workers.
“I can’t impress upon you enough how important it is to move forward,” she told the commissioners.
After Atwell made the motion to approve the issuance of the bonds, Alpert pointed out that the problem with the last paid parking initiative in downtown Sarasota “was the meters themselves, [which] were hard to use, hard to understand.”
The paid parking program on St. Armands will allow people to use change, credit cards and even an app on their smartphones, she noted. People dining in restaurants or shopping in stores will not have to worry about hurrying back to vehicles to increase time on their meters, she said.
“And until tonight,” she added, “I had heard no objections to this [from the public].” Merchants, landowners and homeowners “all came together to put this plan together.”
However, Freeland Eddie said, “Safeguards that we could have in place to ensure the best use of taxpayer dollars are, in my opinion, just are not here.” If the paid parking program does not bring in as much revenue as staff predicts, she continued, the only options the commissioners will have will be to increase the parking fees and install meters in other parts of St. Armands.
“My concern,” Eddie said, “is that we are jumping in without a test.”