News Analysis: A Bias Against Parking Garages in East Lansing?

Tuesday, July 10, 2018, 10:20 am
By: 
Alice Dreger and Ann Nichols

Is there a bias against parking garages among would-be customers to East Lansing’s downtown? This question has come to the fore as the Center City District construction project goes on.

Business owners are saying few people are now coming downtown, suggesting that part of the problem is the challenge of parking. But City leaders keep pointing out there’s plenty of parking in the garages.

City Council has tried to help businesses in the area of construction by providing some free parking vouchers via a special program. But that doesn’t seem to be having a measurable impact according to business managers, because many would-be visitors don’t want to be bothered with parking garages, not to mention the challenge of navigating half-closed streets and detours.

Asked at the most recent Council of Neighborhood Presidents’ meeting about the health of downtown businesses given the construction, Mayor Mark Meadows acknowledged, “It’s been tough for them.” He said there is “plenty of parking downtown” but that “convincing people of that is a hard thing at this time.”

The reality, he reiterated, “is there is a lot of parking available in the downtown.”

Council Member Ruth Beier agrees, telling ELi, “There is no denying that construction is disruptive. In our case, though, the only lot that is closed is Lot 1. The Charles and Division Street ramps [shown above] are not appreciably further away from the businesses downtown than is Lot 1.”

Beier notes, “People who want to go to the Black Cat, Hop Cat, El Azteco or Mackerel Sky or any downtown business can park at one of these ramps just as easily as they used to park in Lot 1.” In fact, the Division Street ramp (the “colorful parking structure”) is less than a quarter-mile away from what was Lot 1.

Beier says, “While people might say that the parking is less convenient, I really think it is more that people have a bias against ramps.”

In essence, most business owners agree with Beier about that bias. They say that many would-be downtown East Lansing customers strongly prefer surface parking over parking garages like the Grove Street lot, shown above.

What this means is that the loss of Lot 1 to the Center City District project has apparently meant much more than the loss of those parking spots; it has meant the loss of the perception that downtown East Lansing has convenient parking.

Tom (Dewey) Bramson owns and operates a number of dining and drinking establishments in East Lansing, including Beggar’s Banquet, the Riv, and Harrison Roadhouse, along with other restaurants in Ann Arbor, Jackson, and Denver, Colorado. (Disclosure: Bramson’s company provides financial support to ELi.)

Says Bramson, customers who have been coming to Beggar’s Banquet for years don’t like parking garages, particularly given that those in East Lansing “are not the cleanest.” Several business managers have told ELi that the parking garage elevators and stairwells often smell of urine and stale beer, which turns customers off, especially if they’re coming to dine.

Bramson also had one customer tell him that “the City is discriminating against older people” because the City has moved to self-pay parking. The self-pay machines can be challenging to operate, particularly for older people with visual and movement limitations and less familiarity with phone apps for parking.

Meadows told the Council of Neighborhood Presidents that the City had looked into offering valet parking during construction, but that businesses downtown had little interest in the idea.

Beier suggests that, “One option for seniors who don’t want to park at all is to use Uber. The kids tell me that we have a real Uber market now, and the more people use it, the more the market will grow.”

According to ELPD Deputy Chief Steve Gonzalez, vehicles (rideshare or otherwise) stopping to drop people off in the downtown area are generally in danger of being ticketed under Section 257.676b of the Michigan Motor Vehicle Code, which states that "a person, without authority, shall not block, obstruct, impede, or otherwise interfere with the normal flow of vehicular or pedestrian traffic upon a public street or highway.”

Uber and Lyft drivers are routinely ticketed for stopping to drop riders on downtown streets and corners.

Gonzalez notes, however, that ELPD has discretion in enforcing that law, and that “under the situation you describe of dropping elderly or handicapped persons off at a specific site, I would surmise that our officers would not take such enforcement.”

Mayor Pro Tem Erik Altmann, an avid bicyclist, often reminds people that there are options besides cars for getting downtown. He has suggested people bike, walk, or take a bus.

City Council has been on a trend to approve large apartment projects like The Hub with less and less parking built-in, the idea being that this will help create a city with fewer cars and more people staying downtown, including for their shopping and dining needs.

 

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