Parking ban reversal may be too little, too late

Grand Rapids city commissioners responded to business community appeals last week, eliminating a Downtown Grand Rapids Inc. GR Forward plan banning construction of surface parking lots, which was implemented more than a year ago. Whether such reversal is too little, too late remains to be seen, but it may stymie what has become a slow drain of businesses relocating from downtown to the suburbs, citing lack of parking for employees and customers as the chief reason. The Business Journal has been representing these concerns for more than two years, as building owners losing tenants became increasingly alarmed.

Business owners make decisions for the health and sustainability of their company, and the Business Journal supports this city action — and additional answers that sustain that economic growth and stability in the city.

Just one month ago, some city commissioners supported a $100,000 “bike-sharing” study to initiate a $2-million program (completely funded by the city) as one method to “alleviate” the issues related to a parking system now at 95 percent capacity.

The city approved the parking ban recommendation in the GR Forward plan pieced together by Downtown Grand Rapids Inc. last year, and then was assisted with the systematic sale of existing city parking areas to developers. By summer 2017, another 595 parking spots will disappear south of the Van Andel Arena for development of the mixed-use movie theater and residential complex. Suggesting the bike program “helps” all attendant issues related to the absence of commuter and customer parking is arrogant and cavalier.

The repeated concerns of building and business owners over two years fell on deaf ears. Most recently, yet another large downtown tenant indicated it is packing to the suburbs and taking another 300 employees with them (in addition to the almost 300 already moved last year to a suburban location).

The Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce held a meeting for its members in early February, following the “surprise” of a survey showing members had concerns about parking. It was only a surprise to the chamber, however, which participated in the “transparent, public input” meetings as “representational” of the business community. The chamber approved the GR Forward plan. The Business Journal learned the chamber’s concern was heightened when its downtown members started canceling their memberships this winter over the rift.

Those recommending the plan glossed over the loss of city income tax from downtown workers as compared to any gain in new residential property tax. The loss of a burgeoning number of largely professional commuters is a net loss compared to residents moving into tax-free housing developments. Statistical data from 2013 shows 23,943 of the residents living in downtown commute out of downtown for jobs. The number of households within the 49503 ZIP code was 31,825 in the same year. That is the reality. Well more than 61,580 commuters (shown in 2011 Census data) work downtown and pay city income taxes.

Additional solutions will be necessary… unless businesses continue to hang vacancy signs in the downtown and move on with the business of business.

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