Downtown parking became more expensive by an average of $8 per space Sept. 1, when the city of Grand Rapids implemented rate changes throughout its parking system that it says are necessary to keep up with supply and demand.
“We have not significantly raised the rates in the parking system in a long time,” said Josh Naramore, manager of Mobile GR & Parking. “We’ve done some minor adjustment to keep up with the consumer price index.”
But Naramore said a study conducted in the past couple years that looked at the city’s parking capacity found city parking ramps, surface lots and metered spaces mostly were underpriced.
“We’d underpriced the parking and had not kept up with some of the market forces associated with it,” he said. “The rate changes are trying to correct that by pricing them based on market conditions, because we don’t have any availability of supply.”
Naramore said nearly all of the city-owned lots still are being paid off.
“We have more than $40 million of debt that we are paying off still for the ramps that have been constructed throughout the city,” he said. “We have a lot of debt service we are paying down on an annual basis.”
As the city looks to add parking and better manage the current system, Naramore said the price hikes became necessary.
The city itself is a parking customer, and some people have questioned if the city’s workforce is being impacted in the same ways as employees of downtown businesses.
Naramore said approximately 880 parking cards are issued to city employees for use in the more than 7,500 city-owned and operated parking spaces in downtown.
He said the numbers are a bit misleading, however, because the number of cards reflects police volunteers, part-time workers, seasonal and contract employees, as well as special event staff who occasionally park in city facilities.
He estimated the actual number of full-time employees parking in the city lots is closer to 700.
Naramore said the majority of city staff park in either the Government Center parking ramp or the DeVos Place Convention ramp, with the exception of police personnel.
According to the data supplied by Mobile GR & Parking, 197 parking cards were issued to city employees in the Government Center lot and 124 parking cards were issued to city employees for DeVos Place spaces. The government lot has a total of 918 spaces, and the DeVos Place lot has a total of 668 spaces.
Naramore said it’s important to note the city operates the DeVos Place lot on behalf of the Convention and Arena Authority, and the CAA establishes the amount of parking available to the city and Kent County staff.
“Each department is charged the market rate to pay for their parking unless there is something else in the contract,” Naramore said. “People in the Government Center are paying the full rate to the parking fund. At DeVos Place, there is a set rate for county and city employees set by the CAA, and it’s capped at how many people can park there.”
He said one of the challenges with making changes to city parking spaces is parking agreements are part of union contracts, and they can include rates as well as location.
For instance, he said the police department’s parking rate and parking locations are part of its bargaining contract.
“They pay one aggregate for all police staff, and it goes up every year,” Naramore said.
He said the police department staff issued cards at Monroe Center (113 cards), Weston Commerce (250) and Gallery (68) lots.
“They do not occupy that total number of spaces, as staffing is split into three shifts,” Naramore noted.
Naramore said because union contracts are negotiated every three years, making changes to city staff parking has been slow, but he said a parking cash-out program now is part of the contract negotiation process.
Beginning Oct. 1, several city employees will have the option to trade in their parking card for a cash payment of 70 percent what their department pays into the parking fund for their parking space.
Employees taking the parking cash out can use that payout for parking in a lot of their choosing — as long as space is available in that lot — or choose an alternative mode of transportation, such as bicycling or public transit to get to and from work.
“It is a way to increase the transition to different facilities or to encourage people not to park,” Naramore said. “We’ve seen people start to put in applications for the parking cash-out program.”
The city hopes the financial incentive will encourage city staff to move to parking spots farther out or to choose alternative transportation, similar to what it’s asking businesses and their employees to do.
Naramore said the citywide goal is to transition to a 90/10 split, which means 10 percent of people will choose a transportation option other than single vehicle.
“That is citywide and includes everyone, but I would argue the city should set that goal for ourselves,” Naramore said. “So, 10 percent of the city’s workforce should be doing that, something other than driving alone and parking in the facility, such as parking more remotely and taking transit in or biking or just taking transit.”
Naramore said the city has not been tracking how people are getting to work aside from those issued parking cards, so he couldn’t say how many staff members already are using public transit, biking or walking. In the future, he expects data will be collected.
Naramore said he is aware of people’s frustration regarding the rate changes and the push to get drivers to park further away, but he said he thinks the main reason for the resistance is the unknown.
He said a lot of people in Grand Rapids haven’t taken public transportation and aren’t sure how to use the system.
Naramore said the city is working to find ways to help downtown visitors use the DASH buses and Silver Line, in hopes that increased comfort with the system will lead to more acceptance and an easier transition.
He said last week’s DASH and Dine Discount event is an example of how the city is working to encourage people to try out the public transit system.
The promotion gave DASH and Silver Line riders a 10 to 20 percent discount off their entire food purchase at several downtown restaurants.
He said the city also is partnering with ArtPrize as a sponsor so it can prominently feature the DASH system and, hopefully, get visitors to use public transit while they are downtown.
He said ArtPrize will be managed like any other special event, as far parking goes.
The city also has rolled out GR Park, a new app, which helps drivers locate available visitor parking spaces in real time throughout the city’s lots.
Naramore said he knows many people will continue to drive and park downtown, and he doesn’t expect that to change, but he said there are people who will be willing to adjust their transportation habits, and that frees up spaces for others.
For those curious about how Naramore gets to work each day, he said he walks.