Eau Claire’s older public parking ramp is nearing its 50th birthday, a time when engineers say ongoing maintenance will become increasingly costly.
Providing more than 400 parking stalls to downtown businesses, their employees and customers, the city is beginning to consider how it will replace the gray monolithic structure built in 1973 at South Farwell and Gibson streets.
“This structure is nearing the end of its useful life and planning is currently underway to determine how much parking is necessary and where the parking should be located,” City Manager Dale Peters wrote in his proposed plan for projects the city intends to undertake in the next five years.
Though still a rough estimate and several years out, there is a figure of about $28 million needed for downtown parking mentioned in the city’s 2020-2024 Capital Improvement Plan.
That’s not just for replacing the Gibson Street ramp, but also another aging parking structure and lots that could be redeveloped.
The city’s Riverside parking deck, which is a mix of permit and metered parking with 119 stalls on Graham Avenue, also is reaching the end of its useful life. The capital plan shows $560,000 in repairs in 2021 to keep it safe and functional for a few more years, but the document also says the riverfront location could be redeveloped instead.
Elsewhere downtown, the city’s 70-stall Railroad Street parking lot already has been declared excess property earlier this year, giving private developers a shot to pitch their ideas for that waterfront property on the Eau Claire River.
More money, stalls
The first $3 million in downtown parking spending is currently slated for 2023 — the Gibson Street ramp’s semicentennial — for engineering, design and other costs for replacements of old facilities and accommodating the city’s future parking needs. Building that new parking — whether it be a large ramp, multiple smaller structures or some hybrid solution with surface lot space — is envisioned to cost about $10 million in 2024 and another $15 million in subsequent years, based on the proposed plan.
The city currently estimates it will need to build 1,000 parking stalls to replace aging public parking facilities and add to the supply of spots downtown as the area grows in popularity.
“The final number is subject to revision based on the parking study,” city engineer David Solberg said.
The city is in the midst of a parking study of multiple issues, including seeking an expert opinion on what to do about downtown parking structures that are aging or in locations that would be better used for private redevelopment. That study is expected to wrap up and deliver its recommendations this summer, Solberg said.
In the meantime, the city did use the 1,000-stall estimate to come up with the rough estimates of future prices for new parking ramp spaces in the projects plan, using a projected cost of $26,000 per stall of structured parking.
Several years ago, the city used a $16,000-per-stall estimate prior to building its an $11 million ramp in what was a large swath of vacant land at North Barstow and Galloway streets. The significantly higher future cost projection for new parking structures is based on construction costs continuing to outpace inflation and difficulties of building in tight downtown quarters that would require using a tower crane and hauling in materials from off-site, Solberg said. Without a recommendation yet from consultants doing the parking study, Solberg said that building a new ramp where the current Gibson Street one stands now is a possibility.
“We’re keeping our options open,” he said. “We don’t have any predisposition right now.”
But he did say the city would prefer to build on land it currently owns or partner with a private developer on a project to include public parking, as opposed to buying up new property downtown.
How to pay
City finance director Jay Winzenz did not downplay the parking figures in the projects plan that the city released earlier this month.
“This is a major, major capital expenditure for the city of Eau Claire,” he said.
While the timing and dollar amount for projects in the latter years of the city’s Capital Improvement Plan can change, Winzenz said it’s important for the city to begin planning now for downtown parking.
“What we do know for sure is that the Gibson Street parking ramp is coming to the end of its useful life without significant capital investments,” he said. “It’s getting to the point where the cost to extend its life significantly start rising exponentially because of the level of repairs.”
So where would the money come from to build new parking downtown?
The initial $3 million for design, engineering and other initial costs is anticipated to come from general borrowing. The following $10 million is anticipated to be paid from property taxes on new development that’s happened downtown in recent and coming years in the city’s Tax Increment Financing District No. 11. The existing Gibson Street ramp is in that district as well as businesses driving downtown parking demand, such as the Lismore Hotel.
“There’s going to be need for public parking in that district,” Winzenz said.
Where the remaining $15 million estimated for parking facilities in 2025 and 2026 will come from is not yet known.
There has been a significant rise in revenues tied to public parking in recent years, but the city sees its ramps as break-even operations.
With the opening of the new ramp, signing of leases for spots there and in the old ramp, the city’s parking revenues doubled from 2016 to 2017.
In 2016, Eau Claire’s public parking fund took in $312,455, but that grew to $628,254 the following year, according to city budgets.
Usually breaking even, the parking fund posted surpluses around $160,000 in 2017 and 2018.
But expenses have risen in recent years, too, including the $75,000 budgeted this year for the parking study. In the current budget, the parking fund is again expected to break even.
“Right now those ramps for the most part are covering their operating expenses and some of their ongoing maintenance expenses,” Winzenz said.
That doesn’t pay off the construction of the ramps themselves, but he said if the city charged users enough to pay for building the ramps, the rates would be more than what people are willing to pay.
Look in the future
While the city doesn’t provide public parking in other parts of Eau Claire where private development is starting from scratch, downtown is different because of its density.
“The role of the city is to facilitate a comprehensive approach to parking in an urban setting,” said Peters, Eau Claire’s city manager.
While parking structures do cost more money than lots, Peters noted the price of prime downtown land and opportunities for redevelopment are high, making ramps necessary.
But the city also encourages alternate forms of transportation, including walking, bicycling and using public transit, he added.
The city previously hired a consultant in 2014 to study parking in downtown Eau Claire as the area had experienced significant revitalization.
Based off findings from that study, the city did build its ramp in the North Barstow Street area as well as opting for free on-street parking with a two-hour time limit in the downtown area.
“So much has changed in those five years,” Solberg said.
The city’s own parking counts have noted a rise in people coming downtown, he said, and there have been advances in vehicle and parking meter technology. The current study is taking those into account and will help the city design its parking to accommodate those.
“Technology and autonomous vehicles are important factors to anticipate when making long-term plans for parking in an urban environment,” Peters said.