'Minimal' usage reported at new parking garage

Officials expect more users as city develops; drivers have high praise for convenience of facility

Joan Golden, senior vice president of Firstar Bank, 900 Mass., loves the new city parking garage.

Since the four-level, 493-space facility opened Oct. 12 in the 900 block of New Hampshire Street, Golden has been parking there for work every morning.

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Richard Gwin/Journal World Photo

The city's new downtown parking garage hasn't seen much activity just yet. There was plenty of parking throughout the new facility on the day after Thanksgiving, traditionally a favorite time to hit the stores. Officials say the opening of the new Lawrence Arts Center and other downtown developments will lead to more garage users.

"It's convenient," she said. "It's easy in-and-out. I think it's a bargain."

So far, however, not many other motorists are following Golden's lead. Sgt. Doug Bell, city parking control supervisor, said that while he doesn't have official numbers yet, garage usage is "minimal."

But city officials aren't worried.

"That garage was built for the future," said Mike Wildgen, Lawrence city manager and co-manager of the Downtown 2000 construction project. "When that arts center gets going, there's going to be tremendous demand for parking there."

The new Lawrence Arts Center is under construction across the street from the garage. That project is scheduled for completion next spring.

Despite a few technical glitches early on with the garage's pay stations, city officials say feedback about the new facility has been positive.

The next order of business, they say, is to spread the word the garage exists and that motorists can buy permits to park there.

"Our first priority was to get it open. We've got it open and got the street opened," said Dave Corliss, assistant city manager and co-manager of the Downtown 2000 construction project. "Now we're working to publicize available parking spaces."

Making progress

The garage took less than a year to build. Construction began Oct. 23, 2000, and was expected to be complete by Dec. 31. Mar Lan Construction LLC, the project's general contractor, beat that deadline by more than two months.

Two-way traffic on New Hampshire Street has resumed, but the eastern lane remains closed as construction crews continue work on the arts center.

The garage itself cost $7.13 million. The city paid an additional $405,000 for the garage as part of a land purchase with property owners in the 900 block of New Hampshire Street.

Parking is free for two hours on the garage's street level. Parking on upper levels costs $1 per use � whether for five minutes or five hours � each day.

Low garage usage combined with cheap parking prices won't affect the city's ability to pay off the facility, Wildgen said, because it's not depending on garage revenues to pay the principal.

The city issued 20-year tax increment finance bonds for the project, meaning that additional property taxes generated by development in the area will repay initial costs incurred by the city.

Positive feedback

So far, the only complaints Bell has heard are about the garage's self-pay stations, which didn't work properly when the facility opened.

"We're working on those," he said. "They're brand new and electronic, and it's just simply a matter of getting the bugs out."

Aside from that, however, Bell says people � especially downtown merchants � have been happy with the new structure.

"Some of them are able to park long-term, protected from the weather," he said. "It's $1 a park for all day. That's good for them and their employees."

Molly Pulliam, a sales associate at Backwoods Equipment Co., 916 Mass., parks in the garage a few times a week on days she doesn't ride her bike to work. She said her four co-workers follow a similar routine.

"It's pretty convenient," she said. "With winter coming, it'll be harder to ride my bike."

Another concern as winter approaches is icy surfaces in the garage. Though the five stairwells are covered from above, they're open to the weather on the sides, leaving the possibility for rain, sleet and snow to create slippery walkways.

Not to worry, city officials say. With the new garage came a new full-time employee to maintain it.

"I believe she will do everything she can to make that as safe as possible," Bell said. "She has a small office right there in the garage."

Wildgen offered another solution: "That's why there are elevators."

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