Downtown TIF clears first hurdle on free parking, moves to future

By Scott Nishimura

Downtown Fort Worth visitors get more free parking spaces at night and on weekends, under leases at four popular garages renewed Wednesday by the Downtown Tax Increment Finance District board.

The leases continue free parking and provide more spaces through 2025, at 777 Main, which handles about half of Bass Hall traffic, and at Sundance Square’s three garages.

That gives the TIF board and other downtown stakeholders time to figure out what to do in the longer term with free parking, an immensely popular amenity among visitors to downtown restaurants, bars, entertainment venues, and stores since the TIF began subsidizing it in 1995.

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“We all know it’s going away eventually, at least from this body taking care of it,” City Council member Ann Zadeh, a TIF board member, said. “But going forward, we need to be planning long range.”

“We’re going to have to come up with a solution,” City Council member W.B. “Zim” Zimmernan, the TIF board chairman, said.

Three more leases – the Tower, Tarrant County, and City Place – expire by the end of 2018. And the TIF, which generates money for downtown improvements based on increases in the property tax base, is set to expire in 2025. That, and a lengthy list of other potential projects the TIF could fund during the remainder of its life, has set off a debate about the future of free parking downtown.

“We certainly will be looking past the next 11 years and what has to happen,” Dione Kennedy, CEO of Performing Arts Fort Worth, which runs Bass Hall, said.

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Patrons, in more than 2,500 responses that Performing Arts collected, suggested they would pare their visits downtown or cut back how much they spend on their evenings out, if free parking were cut back.

Downtown booster Ed Bass, in a recent interview with The Business Press, said Bass Hall would suffer a “devastating” blow without free parking. Without free parking, large property owners such as his family’s Sundance Square would go to validated parking, he said, but added that would hurt restaurants and stores that aren’t part of the big developments.

The 777 Main lease, which was set to expire Friday, will set aside 1,000 night and weekend spaces for the general public under the new agreement. Previously, it set aside 700 spaces for Bass Hall patrons only.

Annual cost to the TIF under the new agreement will range between $255,000 and $335,032, or $250 per space on average. The TIF had been paying 777 Main’s owners about $520,000.

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Sundance Square agreed to blend its leases – two at the City Center and third at Chase Bank. The City Center leases were set to expire this fall, and the TIF owed Sundance $2.5 million over the remaining four years of the Chase Bank lease.

The new agreement stretches the $2.5 million across the next 11 years to 2025 and covers all three garages, meaning Sundance “threw in” the City Center spaces, Jim Johnson, the TIF administrator, said.

Sundance will provide free night and weekend parking in a total 1,545 spaces at the City Center garages, and 766 night and weekend spaces in the Chase Bank garage, plus another 64 free spaces for library patrons at that garage.

Sundance had been setting aside a total 1,000 spaces for free night and weekend parking in the City Center garages and 120 for Bass Hall event staff. The number of spaces in the Chase Bank garage remains the same in the new agreement.

The TIF had been paying Sundance about $150,000 per year for the City Center lease, and $640,000 for the Chase Bank lease. The new combined agreement averages out to $100 per space.

The $100 is the target that Johnson, the TIF administrator, has been seeking in negotiating the renewals.

“I think that this is a much better deal for the TIF than where we were before,” County Commissioner Roy C. Brooks, a TIF board member, said.

Tracy Gilmour, Sundance’s marketing director, said Sundance’s operating and maintenance costs for the parking are more than the $100 lease payment, but that continuing free parking is “critical.”

“We were willing to make a few sacrifices…to get to a deal,” she said.

The lease renewals will mean the TIF will pay $3.2 million more for free parking in the next 11 years, beyond what it was already committed to in the existing leases.

That lowers the total remaining unallocated money expected to be generated by the TIF in its lifetime to $26.5 million.

The TIF board, in approving its project and finance plan a year ago for the unallocated money, included affordable housing, high-rise residential and a parking garage, infrastructure and transportation, matching grants for improvements to existing retail facades, and a Fort Worth schools science, tecnnology, engineering, and math academy.

“All of the things that are on this list are also very important, and I want us all to keep that in mind,” Zadeh said, adding she hopes downtown will become so successful that free parking won’t be such a high-stakes matter once the TIF expires.

The $3.2 million in added parking expense includes $3 million from the new 777 Main agreement, $218,000 from the Sundance agreement, and $34,000 for a potential jump in rent at the Tarrant County garage.

Tarrant County, whose average per-space rent is $100, has a clause in its lease allowing it bump up its TIF subsidy if another garage negotiated a rent above $100.

“I’ve budgeted for it,” but don’t know what Tarrant County will do, Johnson said.

Asked whether the lease renewals – all for the TIF’s most popular garages – put the TIF in position to cut back in the renewals of the three remaining leases, Johnson said, the new agreements “add more spaces in a better location. It adds a lot of space, and it will be interesting to see what kind of usage it gets.”

Brooks asked whether the new 777 Main agreement will have to be renegotiated once 777 Main, which is for sale, gets a new owner.

Josh Pirtle, representing 777 Main owner Cousins Properties, told the TIF directors, “it’ll be a binding contract…assignable to the new owner.”

“We are not under contract at this point, so we have authority to enter this type of agreement,” he said. “We’ve also made potential buyers aware of this situation.”