(As seen on WZZM TV 13) Business owners in Monroe North are clearing the air on parking.
Following the multiphase land swap with the city of Grand Rapids, Grand Valley State University and Kent County, members of the Monroe North Business Association had an open discussion with Downtown Grand Rapids Inc. and Mobile GR to voice their concerns about how new developments in the area are putting constraints on parking.
Josh Naramore, manager of Mobile GR and Parking Services, said there currently are about 700 on-street parking spaces in the area with plans to add more. There are 350 on-street metered parking spaces and another 325 limited-time, on-street parking spaces in the area, all free on weekends. There also are about 3,300 off-street parking spaces in the Monroe North sector.
John Zwarensteyn, CEO of Gemini Publications, the Business Journal’s parent company, brought up what he viewed as some major parking conflicts, indicating Monroe North typically has been viewed as an alternative for businesses looking for inexpensive parking.
“The city always puts out information that there are plenty of vacancies, plenty of parking spaces, and then the business’s approach is ‘no there aren’t,’” he said. “There aren’t enough convenient spaces for visitors or their employees. They have to go further and further out.”
Zwarensteyn also said certain businesses are monopolizing parking spaces, so smaller businesses have an even more difficult time finding affordable space.
Naramore said he didn’t disagree with the claims but added the biggest strain Mobile GR has faced is the lack of availability specifically for monthly parking in the heart of downtown.
“We’re a victim of our own success,” he said. “There’s a lot of fabulous development that’s happening. There are a lot of businesses and employers that want to be part of downtown.”
The city is not the only provider of parking. One of the major obstacles to building more parking has been the lack of available land, so the city has been working through public/private partnerships to increase inventory, he said.
Naramore added there are almost 3,000 spaces in the downtown area being built by private companies, and it may take 18-24 months for all of them to come online.
Zwarensteyn said he was concerned the cost of construction for new lots is driving employers away from downtown, and new arrivals aren’t finding out about the cost to park their employees until they move in.
Naramore, however, said he wasn’t convinced. Although he’s heard “anecdotal evidence” of sticker shock driving businesses out of downtown, he claimed he hasn’t seen the data to suggest it’s a widespread problem.
Visitor parking, comparatively, hasn’t been quite as strained. Naramore said the city always has been able to accommodate visitors through parking available in public or private facilities and on-street parking.
Parking spaces reserved for employees from 8 a.m.-5 p.m. on weekdays also are available to visitors after hours and on weekends, Naramore said.
“Visitor parking for The Garage (Bar & Grill) or SpeakEZ (Lounge) — there’s a ton of on-street parking,” Naramore said. “This is one of the most over-parked districts in terms of the availability, but it’s regulated. It’s not free.”
In the past, Monroe North used to enjoy free, or what Naramore preferred to call “unregulated,” parking. But new developments and continued business growth have forced the city to adopt a regulated system with meters and dedicated employee hours.
Paulie Abissi, co-owner of Higher Ground rock climbing range, 851 Bond Ave. NW, said his business used to enjoy open parking along with neighboring businesses.
“I don’t want to turn this into a complaint fest, but come 5 o’clock when all my clients are coming in, this is also filled with all the people coming to the different restaurants, bakeries … we even have the construction workers going on,” he said.
Mobile GR has been working to accommodate businesses in the area that have been impacted. The organization most recently worked with Gill Industries, 706 Bond Ave. NW, to find a solution to its employee-parking problem caused by the Embassy Suites Hotel construction across the street.
Caleb Hollier, Gill plant manager, spoke in favor of the city’s efforts. He said the solutions were not ideal, but given the current constraints, his company has managed to provide reliable employee parking.
“We’re currently taking advantage of two different types of parking being offered by the city,” Hollier said. “One is one of the lots north of here … it’s a card access lot. And we also have some of our associates for which we have purchased the monthly parking passes for on-street Ionia parking.”
Tom Welling, vice president of development and facilities for Suburban Inns, the developer of Embassy Suites, said a seven-story parking structure will be added to the hotel, which will add approximately 500 spaces.
“We felt by adding that, it would continue growth in the area,” Welling said.
Although Gill employees are required to park a block-and-a-half away from where they work, Hollier said the process to apply for parking through the city was relatively seamless.
Hollier did admit, however, as a manufacturing plant, his company’s needs were different from a restaurant or retail venue. While Gill only has to worry about employee parking, a restaurant like The Garage, 819 Ottawa Ave. NW, has to work to accommodate both employees and guests.
Kevin Farhat, owner of The Garage, said his guests primarily are confused by the Parkmobile app, which the city has implemented as an option to pay for metered parking.
“It’s a little discouraging to walk out of my restaurant and see the street empty,” he said. “They circle, they circle, they circle, trying to find a free spot or maybe don’t understand the signs as well. Maybe we could have done a better job understanding how that app works.”
Naramore said the city is replacing Parkmobile in June with a new vendor due to problems it has encountered. He said the city will move to a locally branded application through a national provider.
“The No. 1 problem is we’ve had people pay for parking in Milwaukee, Wisconsin,” he said. “I don’t say that jokingly, it’s just the way it’s been set up.”
Based on Mobile GR data, there is a large percentage of downtown employees who live within 4 miles of the downtown area. The organization is working on incentives with the city to identify employees who are able and willing to give up their parking in exchange for alternative transportation.
Naramore emphasized the organization is not going to force anyone to give up parking but is exploring opportunities to better accommodate long-distance commuters who don’t have a choice.