Sunday, April 07, 2002

More choices in downtown parking

'It's more of a buyer's market today'

By Jeff McKinney,
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Tristate commuters have many more choices of where to park in downtown Cincinnati — and can almost pick what they want to pay, a big shift from almost two years ago.

        There are about 36,000 spaces for downtown workers and visitors in or near the central business district, or 2,000 to 3,000 more spaces than the summer of 2000, before new parking lots tied to riverfront development began opening and brought some relief.

[photo] A view of the parking lots between Paul Brown Stadium (right) and Cinergy Firld
(Gary Landers photo)
| ZOOM |
        “The city's and county's investment in parking has dramatically changed the situation from two years ago,” says John Schneider, transportation adviser at Downtown Cincinnati Inc. “People working or visiting downtown have more and better choices than when the riverfront investment started in recent years.”

        More spaces are available because of garages and lots built in areas on downtown's fringes after construction of Paul Brown Stadium and renovation of Fort Washington Way.

        That's encouraging news for many of the 90,000 downtown workers, as well as people who shop or visit downtown. For years, they were frustrated by a parking crunch that prompted many of them and some major Cincinnati companies to flee to suburbs.

        The newest spots bring the number of riverfront parking spaces to 8,288, the highest level ever and up from a little more than 5,000 before several riverfront projects began in 1997.

        Planners contend that there is adequate parking for all, but that could change later this year.

Largest downtown parking lots
        Mr. Schneider estimates that the downtown parking vacancy rate today is 11 percent, up from about 5 percent or less two years ago. The DCI Transportation Committee, which has been monitoring downtown's parking market for several years, believes that downtown needs to maintain an overall vacancy rate between 8 percent to 10 percent to ensure there is adequate parking at reasonable rates for workers and visitors driving downtown.

        At those levels, Mr. Schneider says that means that about 3,000 emply spaces should be available on a typical day.

        Mr. Schneider says a vacancy rate of 8 percent or less is considered low, giving private operators more room to boost fees.

        Parking fees, meanwhile, have risen at a few of the larger lots in the heart of downtown, but not as rapidly as in 2000, when the Enquirer last reviewed downtown's parking status.

        Mr. Schneider said monthly rates at downtown parking garages and lots — mainly those owned by private companies — have for the most part remained steady since 2000. In comparison, monthly parking fees at many of those locations were going through the roof during 1998-2000, when demand was higher and supply much tighter. Mr. Schneider said that during much of the '90s, rates were going up as much as 20 percent a year.

        The average monthly fee for available spaces at those parking garages and lots now is $60, up from $58 in June 2000 — just before Paul Brown Stadium opened — and $50 in December of that year.

        The reason: Some downtown parkers are giving up more expensive garage spaces for cheaper ones in the outlying lots, experts say. For instance, people who used to park north of Sixth Street and east of Vine Street — where the average monthly price for a vacant space is $70 — appear to be parking along the riverfront, with a monthly average price of $42.

        In turn, that has given private operators less leverage to raise fees as fast as they did during the time of construction.

        “It's more of a buyer's market today than before when operators had pricing power,” Mr. Schneider says. “When spaces opened on riverfront, it became a more balanced market.”

        John Wynn, district manager of Allright/Central Parking System, which owns or manages 60 downtown parking sites and controls about 40 percent of the spaces downtown, said in many cases that his company has been forced to keep prices stable or even cut prices. In some cases, he said, Allright has given special rates during certain times of the day to generate traffic.

        For instance, he said a lot it manages at Seventh and Sycamore, near the Hamilton County Courthouse, now charges $5 for the day after noon, compared with $6 to $8 before more spaces opened the last 12 to 18 months.

        “We're trying to make up the shortfall by offering lower prices or special incentives to attract parkers,” Mr Wynn said. “Some operators are trying to offset reduced prices with higher traffic.”

        The extra parking space has provided breaks for many downtown commuters — but also some challenges.

        Michelle Howard, 40, an accountant for a downtown drug research firm, says she now saves about $30 a month by parking in a new lot near Paul Brown Stadium where she pays $2.50 daily.

        Ms. Howard says that's a much better rate than the $4.50 she paid at a garage at Carew Tower — if she got there by 7:30 a.m. After that, she could be charged up to $12 a day.

        Still, Ms. Howard has concerns about what could be upcoming with the demolition of Cinergy Field.

        She figures many Cinergy parkers will try to gobble up spaces near Paul Brown Stadium, creating a tighter supply along the riverfront.

        “I'm trying to get on the waiting list for (monthly parking), but there's a 60-day wait,” Ms. Howard says. “Parking (both spaces and fees) are better than before, but it's a fight to get a space.”

        But for Don McClurg, a financial analyst at Merrill Lynch in downtown Cincinnati, downtown parkers never had it better.

        He says Cincinnati's downtown parking supply — and fees — are among the best of any U.S. city.

        “To be able to buy a monthly parking pass for $30 to $40 a month, you've got to be kidding,” he said. “Especially in areas that's not really too far of a walk to work.”

        But Mr. McClurg, too, acknowledges that the loss of space at Cinergy could create some problems, but only temporary ones. He said there are still many new spaces along the riverfront not being used.

        “I'm sure a lot of people from Cinergy will try to move down here” along the riverfront, he said. “If it becomes that big of deal for folks, maybe some will have to ride the bus six months or so until they bring along more parking.”

        Mr. Schneider of DCI estimates that 2,320 spaces — of which more than 2,100 are now used — will be lost when workers start tearing down Cinergy, leaving a huge loss of parking along the Ohio River.

        “It definitely will change things and force some people to move around,” he said. “Some people will move up in town (lots north of Third Street) or use transit, like many did before construction of Paul Brown Stadium and Fort Washington Way.”

        More important, Mr. Schneider says, city and county planners are taking steps and have commitments to help make up for shortfalls in downtown parking when the Cinergy spaces are eliminated. He said many parking projects are under way to cover those lost spaces.

        “We'll be working hard this summer to make people aware of what will be available before demolition of Cinergy begins,” Mr. Schneider says. “We have a strategy to keep help maintain an adequate supply of downtown parking.”

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