Saturday, February 18, 2012

Ignored Study Raises Doubts About Need for Expensive Parking Deck

Parking study says deck may not have been necessary
Saturday, Feb. 18, 2012
Augusta, GA
From Reports

As Augusta leaders consider spending money on yet another study, this one focusing on ways to streamline  government operations, we are reminded of a parking study that the city paid to have conducted in 2009 that seems to have been ignored, that could have saved taxpayers millions of dollars.

At behest of the city of Augusta, a TEE Center Parking Study was conducted by Tim Haas Engineering and Architectural firm on September 18, 2009. Their findings were released in a report on Nov. 9, 2009 *(view the pdf of the report at the end of this article).

The study concluded that because of the displacement of 275 parking spaces from the construction of the TEE Center, an additional 300 spaces were needed to accommodate expansion. To achieve this, the study recommended two options:

Option 1 was developing a 300 space surface parking lot along 9th street at The Riverwalk directly across from the Marriott and TEE Center. The study cited several advantages for this option:
  • inexpensive surface parking construction costs
  • opportunity to develop revenue for the land owner
  • safer link to the hotel as one would not have to cross Reynolds Street for access
The study did list a couple of disadvantages to this option:
  • possibility of future building development displacing the surface parking leaving inadequate parking for the TEE Center
  • Assumes land is donated If not donated then the land acquisition or lease cost will add to the total project budget
The total cost for Option 1 was $1,094,444.

Option 2 was building a 400 space parking deck across Reynolds street on land mostly owned by 933 Broad Investment, LLC. The study cited several advantages for this choice:
  • Building one structure capable of handling all parking needs
  • Relatively close to the conference center
  • Once purchased this site is committed to parking with no risk of displacement
We didn't underline that last bullet point for added effect; it was also underlined in the study (the preceding ones were not). The study seems to be adding emphasis to the belief that the site would be purchased by the city (or donated).

But the study also cited several disadvantages with the parking deck option:
  • Greater construction and land acquisition costs
  • Crossing busy Reynolds Street to access the conference center
  • Assumes land is donated If not donated then the land acquisition or lease costs will add to the total project budget
The MAJOR disadvantage with the deck option was the cost, nearly 10 times more expensive than the surface lot option, totaling $9,489,540! And that figure assumed the land being donated.

As we all know, the city went with Option 2, The Parking Deck, which ended up costing $12,000,000 on land that was NOT donated to the city and still under ownership of a 3rd party, 933 Broad Investment, LLC.

So why was the more expensive parking deck built? 
Well it is not entirely clear that commissioners even saw the findings of this parking study. Did they even know that a much cheaper alternative was available before signing off on the parking deck?

Also, the study was conducted on a day when The Marriott was 100% booked and with evening events. When they arrived at their conclusion that an additional 300 spaces would be needed to accommodate an expanded TEE Center, the study made it quite clear that this was based on the assumption that the Marriott would be 100% booked with a full schedule of evening events. So the recommendation for 300 additional parking spaces was in a sense over planning for a very busy TEE Center at peak times. So far the facility is struggling to attract events. But the parking study also made it very clear that a combination of expanded surface parking and shared parking strategies would be more than adequate to accommodate peak parking needs for the expanded TEE Center.

Not only did the city go with the much more expensive deck, when it was probably not even necessary in the first place, but they even added two more levels to it. That increased spaces in the parking deck from 450 to 650. Remember that the 2009 TEE Center parking study recommended that only a 400 space deck was necessary if that option was chosen. This meant that the city had built 350 spaces more than what the 2009 parking study said was necessary to handle peak TEE Center traffic. Was this because the city did not own the ground floor of the parking deck and it's parking spaces? The parking study also made it clear that the parking deck option was predicated on the city acquiring the land, but that never happened.

So why was an even bigger, more expensive parking deck built? As we told you in our previous article, The Hotel That Never Was, around the same time this parking study was being conducted, local businessman Julian Osbon, was issuing  ultimatums and deadlines to commissioners to hurry up and approve an agreement to build the TEE Center or they risked losing a $25,000,000 Hyatt Place hotel, which coincidentally was proposed to be built directly across the street from where the new parking deck sits. Osbon told commissioners that he had a deal with Courtland Dusseau of  Legacy Hospitality LLC to sell his downtown property and develop it into a 139 room hotel and business center, but only if commissioners hurried up and approved construction of the TEE Center.

So we have to ask, did the promise of this hotel and business center factor into the city's decision to go with the more expensive parking deck option, believing that another hotel in the area would put greater stress on downtown parking? The TEE Center and Parking deck were approved by commissioners on December 9, 2009.  But now more than two years later, there has still been no groundbreaking on the Hyatt Place hotel, and it doesn't look like there ever will be.

Courtland Dusseau has said he has been having difficulty securing financing in this tight credit market. But coincidentally, when he came to the city in December of 2010 looking for backing for loans to build the hotel is the same time when the two additional floors of the parking deck were added. The city declined to become a co-signer to any debt to build the hotel, but did the city add expense to the parking deck in an effort to help Dusseau get financing elsewhere? Dusseau's original plans called for a parking garage at the new hotel to accommodate 180 spaces. By adding 200 additional spaces to the parking deck,  was the city trying to shave off expenses for Dusseau's hotel project to aid him in attracting financing? So did the city end up building a parking deck and later expanding it based on the notion of a hotel that has yet to materialize and may never will?

The Ballpark Theory
There has been quite a bit of speculation that the real reason the $12,000,000 parking deck was built  was to accommodate the increased parking needs from a proposed downtown ballpark at the former Golf and Gardens site on Reynolds Street. The downtown ballpark proposal has been a hot topic for more than 5 years now, with the prevailing public sentiment being against using public financing to build it. In fact, in the summer of 2009, just before the TEE Center parking study was conducted, 77% of Democratic party primary voters came out against public financing for a new downtown ballpark. Besides the cost, the other major criticism of a ballpark being located downtown at the former Golf and Gardens site is the lack of parking.

But wouldn't it be rather convenient for ballpark proponents like Mayor Deke Copenhaver, if a new 650 space parking deck was built on Reynolds Streets just a stone's throw from the Golf and Gardens site? Could the ballpark have influenced the city's decision to go with the more expensive option 2 (parking deck) over the less expensive option 1 (surface parking)?

The parking study does not reference a ballpark in making its recommendations. The study clearly looked at the parking needs of the Marriott hotel, Augustino's restaurant, and an expanded TEE Center at peak levels of activity. As we mentioned, the study concluded that only an additional 300 parking spaces were needed to accommodate peak parking needs after TEE Center expansion. The study also made it very clear that additional parking could have easily been achieved with a much cheaper surface parking lot and shared parking strategies instead of a costly parking deck. And even when it came to the option of a parking deck, the study only recommended a 400 space deck with the assumption the land would be donated or acquired by the city.

But the city ended up building a 650 space parking deck costing $12,000,000 on land that it did not acquire (except for a 0.07 acre parcel) and was not donated as initially promised. Why? Was it really necessary to build this deck? Not according to the 2009 TEE Center parking study that the city paid for to help guide them in the right direction. So why was it built? Is this just yet another case of another study being ignored by  city leaders? Or ,was the parking study  conducted just to give the appearance that city leaders were entertaining all options, when indeed the decision had already been made to build the more expensive parking deck? Commission meeting minutes from July 7, 2009 show that City Administrator Fred Russell was already pitching the parking deck option and showing commissioners maps of land parcels the city would acquire to build it. This was  two months before the parking study was conducted that  suggested cheaper surface lots would be sufficient.

As the city is now on the verge of embarking on yet another study that they hope will save the taxpayers' money, we have to  ask will it be ignored as well like the 2009 TEE Center Parking Study? Because it appears to us that the city could have saved over $10,000,000 of tax money if they had paid more attention to that study. But it seems like studies are simply ignored in Augusta when they don't present the findings that certain city leaders want to hear. It appears to us that Augusta has had no shortage of studies, but there is certainly a dearth of common sense from the officials who keep spending money on them and then ignore their conclusions.  That shelf where all these studies seem to end up is not only getting dusty, but more top-heavy. So why add another one to the heap? ***

Below is the 2009 TEE Center Parking Study referenced in this story:
Parking Study Parking Deck -Tee Center (Amendment No 1 to Agreement Tvs

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