Downtown East Lansing Parking: How to Make It Work and Not Lose Money?

Thursday, January 16, 2020, 7:30 am
By: 
Alice Dreger

Above: The back door of Beggar’s Banquet seen from the new Center City parking ramp. (Photos by Raymond Holt)

City of East Lansing staff and the recently reconvened Parking Task Force are trying to figure out how to bring more people downtown, earn more money for the underutilized parking system, and generally meet the needs of residents, downtown workers, and business owners through management of downtown parking.

While some Council members want to provide more free parking to try to help downtown businesses, at Tuesday’s discussion-only meeting, Mayor Ruth Beier expressed caution, saying she didn’t want to end up subsidizing the parking system out of the City’s General Fund.

Beier said that the recent audit of the City’s finances showed that the parking system is “barely making it” in terms of bringing in more revenue than it costs.

East Lansing has an underutilized municipal parking system.

In spite of some people’s perceptions to the contrary, at Tuesday’s meeting East Lansing’s Director of Planning, Tom Fehrenbach said that the downtown parking ramps are only about 64 percent occupied at the peak time of day, which falls from 12:30 to 1:30 p.m. (Football Saturdays see higher usage, but those occur only on a handful of days each fall.)

On Tuesday night, East Lansing parking administrator Caleb Sharrow said that a well-functioning parking system should see peak occupancy rates of about 80 to 90 percent.

Above: Tom Fehrenbach (left) and Caleb Sharrow at Tuesday's meeting.

Two years ago, Fehrenbach’s predecessor said that the City had overbuilt parking ramps, and that was before the new Center City ramp was constructed through a plan to pay for it using over $50 million in tax increment financing (TIF).

While the number of monthly parking permits has increased due to downtown development, Fehrenbach told Council that hourly demand in the downtown garages has decreased by 20 percent over the last decade. He said this was a worrisome statistic.

City staff have heard loud and clear that downtown business owners believe parking policies have a negative effect on their ability to survive, provide services, and employ local people.

At this week’s meeting, staff told Council what would be involved if the grace period in the parking garages was upped from 5 minutes to 15 minutes.

If this change happens, a driver who leaves a garage within 15 minutes of entering would pay nothing. If drivers stay longer than 15 minutes, they would pay for the entire time they use the garage (counting from the minute they entered).

Staff estimate this change would reduce the parking system’s revenue by about $70,000 per year.

Nick Pidek of Foster Coffee came to Council Tuesday to say that a longer grace period could help his business, particularly if his company simultaneously “raises awareness” among customers about the ability to park right above his shop, in the new Albert Avenue/Center City parking ramp.

From his business’ perspective, Pidek said, less expensive parking is needed in downtown East Lansing not only to draw customers to Foster’s relatively new East Lansing location, but also to draw and retain employees who need parking that doesn’t eat up their paychecks.

Council member Jessy Gregg encouraged Pidek to speak to her personally, as she is both Council’s liaison to the Parking Task Force and a fellow downtown business owner. (She owns Seams, a fabric shop on Grove Street.)

Gregg said on Tuesday that the longer grace period “is a step in the right direction” but said she didn’t want to overstate how useful it might be. She said even the offer of a half-hour of free parking fosters a culture of customers looking to leave businesses as fast as possible.

Like Pidek, Gregg encouraged staff and Council to try to ascertain how more free or discounted parking might lead to a growth in business that would ultimately result in more revenue for the City — through the income tax, tax on material goods of businesses, or property tax.

According to Pidek (below), Foster Coffee is currently funding extra parking revenue by helping employees afford parking — by “bumping up their paychecks so they can afford parking.”

During the discussion, Fehrenbach named a number of issues staff would like to see addressed, including the perceived need for more parking west of Abbot Road.

Mayor Pro Tem Aaron Stephens pointed out that the initial ideas for a new building on Albert Avenue, just west of Abbot Road, coming from Michigan State University Federal Credit Union (MSUFCU) suggest that they are not planning to build-in new parking. That project would take away several dozen surface parking spots.

In response, Gregg noted that Peoples Church has been raising many concerns about the loss of parking in the surface area from redevelopment in the immediate vicinity of the church.

Peoples Church recently urged Council to delay approval of a plan for an affordable housing project nearby because they were worried about the implications for parking for the church.

Fehrenbach told Council on Tuesday that new technologies could be employed to provide data to help staff do real-time marketing of downtown parking and to create “dynamic wayfinding” to helps drivers easily understand where parking is available.

That would include not only the electronic signs now on parking garages that show potential parkers how many spaces are available, but also electronic apps to help parkers find spaces with ease.

Fehrenbach also said that he would like to get a better sense of how to “move the needle” in terms of people utilizing public parking and “staying longer” downtown. He also wants to understand how to better support people who want to park mopeds, e-scooters, and electric cars.

Stephens, who is working with the Parking Task Force, said he thinks the 15-minute grace period could help relieve ride-share pickup traffic along Albert Avenue by encouraging drivers to meet customers in the new parking ramp.

But the garage has no designated area for this. The Center City project eliminated taxi stops that had existed on Albert Avenue and was designed without locations for ride-shares or taxis to stop.

Below: Ruth Beier (left) and Jessy Gregg at Tuesday's meeting.

The plan now is for staff to ask the Downtown Development Authority (DDA) and Downtown Management Board (DMB) to help defray the approximately $70,000/year loss to the parking system for providing a 10-minute-longer grace period.

But Beier said she was concerned that these “incremental” changes to the system could just confuse people and not provide staff with good information about what will draw more people downtown.

By contrast, Council member Mark Meadows said he thought the usefulness of incremental changes is to see what might result in financial benefits to the City through other revenue sources obtained from downtown businesses.

Still, Beier expressed the concern that the City has invested millions of dollars in parking ramps and said that if the City is not careful, it could become “defunct” because of using an approach that, in the current environment, loses significant amounts of money.

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