LEWISTON — If you wanted to park your car in a city-owned parking garage mid-day Wednesday, you had at least 735 open spaces to choose from based on a survey of open spaces by the Sun Journal.
But Tuesday night Lewiston’s City Council approved building another city-owned garage with 378 additional spaces for an estimated cost just under $5 million.
Proposed for Lincoln Street, the new garage would be less than a quarter mile from two other city garages and a parking lot that together had at least 375 vacant spots available Wednesday just after noon.
Weekday demand for in-garage parking in the city is so light, in fact, the city closes the top floors on three of its four garages — the ones on Oak, Canal, Lisbon streets — to save the expense of removing snow from them, according to city officials.
But at the same time the city has sold more monthly parking permits than it has space available at its Chestnut Street garage, 628 permits for 610 spaces. Not all those permits are used every day but it also means those spaces are essentially all accounted for.
Another 660 monthly permits are in place at the city’s other three garages, although the permits sold at the remaining garages do not exceed the spaces available, according to the numbers provided by City Administrator Ed Barrett Wednesday.
Each garage also accepts hourly parking customers at varying rates but on Wednesday spaces remained readily available.
Barrett said the council had little wiggle room to not approve the construction of yet another parking garage, the city’s fifth, under a previously inked contract with the Bates Mill LLC, the company working to redevelop a portion of the sprawling Bates Mill complex between Canal and Lincoln streets.
Under the contract, the city needs to make available or create a certain amount of parking for each square foot of mill space redeveloped, and the developer is nearing completion of another significant portion of the Bates Mill No. 2 section of the complex, Barrett said.
Under a formula that counts the parking spots based on how close they are to the re-development, the city is essentially behind on its obligation to create parking spaces, said Barrett and a spokesman Bates Mill LLC.
Barrett estimates, in total, the developer has invested more than $50 million toward revamping the mill complex for retail and office space. The redevelopment has brought an estimated 25 businesses and upwards of 600 jobs to the downtown as well.
So a city’s investment in parking infrastructure is often a necessary kind of incentive when it comes to redeveloping downtowns in Maine, Barrett said.
City-funded and owned parking garages are relatively common, especially in places where the cost of building “structured parking” can be a budget breaker for a developer, Barrett said. One of the reasons for this is owning and operating a parking garage is typically a losing enterprise.
The capital costs of building a garage and the rate at which the property depreciates coupled with the costs of operating and maintaining it usually add up to a negative profits for developers, said Bruce Allen, a spokesman for Bates Mill LLC.
Allen said to be profitable, fees for parking in a privately-owned garages would be so high that nobody would park in the garage and without nearby parking guaranteed, it’s nearly impossible for a developer to attract new tenants.
He understands the frustration some on the City Council and others in the community have voiced over the city spending another $5 million on a parking garage when the ones the city has at present never seem full. “I definitely understand and I would be saying the same thing,” Allen said.
But because most of the vacant spaces in city’s current facilities are already spoken for, they can’t be contracted to new tenants, even when at least one of the nearly half-empty garages, Centreville on Canal Street, is within a very short walk or a stone’s throw to the Bates Mill No. 2 redevelopment area.
“I can understand the people out there looking and seeing these empty spaces but that really doesn’t apply to this project, because many of those spaces are spoken for technically,” Allen said.
The cost of parking as a development subsidy is compounded further when the city can’t charge enough in parking fees to cover debt service or operating costs. The city charges about $50 a month for parking at one of its downtown garages.
“You would have to get $150 a month just to break even and nobody is going to pay that here,” Allen said. “We’ve always had too much free space but if a municipality wants to do downtown development, they’ve got to supply parking.”
Heather Hunter, the city’s finance director, said there was little doubt that parking garages cost the city money. Comparing parking-garage revenues to their costs in 2009, the city spent an estimated $163,000 more on its garages than it received. Hunter said depreciation on the structures alone can make them a loss leader.
“None of them are profitable,” Hunter said.
But Barrett also said without them, prompting redevelopment, expanding the city’s commercial property tax base and growing the downtown’s economy will be increasingly difficult.
“The general rule is: If you want economic development to occur, then you have to help with the cost of structured parking,” Barrett said.