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Time expired? Downtown, city officials debate future of free parking

🕐 10 min read

By Scott Nishimura snishimura@bizpress.net

(UPDATE, Oct. 25: The Downtown tax increment finance district reports on its agenda for the Oct. 29 board meeting that it has reached proposed renewal agreements with the 777 Main garage and the Sundance-owned City Center and Chase Bank garages. Board members are scheduled to vote at the meeting. No additional details provided.)

(UPDATE, Oct. 7: Downtown tax increment finance district board, in search of a quorum, has set meeting for 10 a.m. Oct. 13, in pre-council chambers at City Hall.)

(UPDATE, Oct. 6: The downtown tax increment finance district is rescheduling its Oct. 8 board meeting to the week of Oct. 20-25.)

(CORRECTION: Charles Boswell is district director for State Sen. Wendy Davis; his position was incorrect in an earlier version of this article.)

Everybody agrees free parking has helped downtown Fort Worth restaurants, stores and entertainment venues build business since the downtown tax increment finance district began paying for it in 1995.

The questions begin there, as leases with seven garages that offer free leisure parking subsidized by the finance district expire between this fall and 2018, the TIF itself expires in 11 years, and a list of $30 million in other priorities is hunting for money.

“There’s a fundamental decision,” Ed Bass, the downtown booster whose family has been developing its substantial central business district holdings for more than 30 years and launched the campaign that built Bass Hall, said in an interview.

“For downtown to be successful, you have to provide free parking for leisure time use. How are we going to do this, what mechanism are we going to use?”

The board of the downtown TIF, which generates money for improvements based on growth in the district’s property tax values, is holding two October meetings to decide how to handle two leases that are set to expire this fall: 777 Main, which sets aside spaces for Bass Performance Hall patrons, and Sundance Square’s two City Center garages, which set aside free spots on evenings and weekends and for Bass Hall event staff.

Both are popular among downtown patrons. Cousins Properties owns 777 Main and the Bass family owns Sundance Square.

But if the TIF board squeezes in more money for free downtown parking that could push out money for other potential uses.

The board, in approving an amended project and finance plan for the TIF in September 2013 and raising the lifetime spending cap by $30 million, included a list of potential projects it could subsidize: affordable housing, high-rise residential, infrastructure and transportation, improvements to historic buildings’ facades, the Fort Worth schools’ planned science, technology, engineering and math academy, and signage for vehicle and pedestrian traffic.

The amended plan includes no money for additional free parking, but what the TIF has already committed for the current sites remains in place.

The board hasn’t agreed to any obligations for anything on the project list, but requests for funding are likely to begin soon, said Jim Johnson, the TIF administrator and downtown development director for the Downtown Fort Worth Inc. economic development nonprofit.

“There’s a couple of projects that are likely to come before the TIF board in the next few months,” he said, adding he could not be more specific.

City Council member W.B. “Zim” Zimmerman, the TIF chairman, said the board’s decision could turn on whether the garages are willing to accept the favorable terms the TIF negotiated in renewing a lease with the Tarrant County Family Law Center garage in 2013.

The budget in the amended plan is $28.2 million, leaving room for some expected projects to go higher, as Johnson predicts may happen, or for free parking at a cheaper level than today.

“If we could get everybody to negotiate to that same deal, we’d probably do them all,” Zimmerman said in an interview, noting that the county lease contains a provision that would increase the terms if the TIF negotiates a better renewal with any of the other garages.

The Tarrant County deal costs the TIF $25,000 per year. The TIF pays about $3.4 million annually for free parking under the six leases, which cover more than 3,000 spaces downtown, mostly at night and on weekends.

Extending all of the garage leases at the Tarrant County terms would mean the TIF would spend a total $3 million more on free parking for the remainder of its life, Johnson estimated. “My goal is less than that,” he said.

The TIF board directed Johnson in August to determine whether the other garages would be interested in the terms of the county lease.

The 777 Main lease is the first one up; it expired Sept. 1, and the board extended it until Oct. 31. Johnson said Cousins has “countered” the Tarrant County terms.

“I would term it as constructive, and I will present that to the TIF board” during the first of its two October meetings, Oct. 8, Johnson said.

Bass said 777 Main handles about half of Bass Hall patrons’ parking, and he said the loss of free parking in that garage would be “devastating” to Bass Hall.

Complicating the 777 Main negotiation: Cousins listed the big downtown office property for sale in mid-September.

“We’re not quite sure how that’s going to work,” Zimmerman said. “You don’t know who to talk to.”

As the leases expire, Zimmerman said the he wants to find a long-term solution to free parking outside the TIF.

Options

A public improvement district, in which property owners in a zone agree to tax themselves extra for improvements, is one possibility, Zimmerman said. Downtown has a PID (public improvement district), established in 1986, re-established in 2009, and to expire in 2029.

Validation is another, board members and downtown stakeholders said. That would have mixed results, Bass, who is not a TIF board member, said.

If free parking downtown was no longer subsidized, “some of the larger owners such as Sundance Square would have to go to a validation means, which would be very detrimental to the establishments that aren’t part of those larger developments,” Bass said.

Sundance Square CEO Johnny Campbell is a TIF board member, but he’s recused himself from the lease negotiations and declined to be interviewed for this story.

Performing Arts Fort Worth, which runs Bass Hall, has been asking supporters to register their opinions. The results from nearly 2,000 responses show that a diminution of free parking downtown would hurt the organizations that use Bass Hall, restaurants, hotels and shops, Dione Kennedy, Performing Arts CEO, said in an interview.

“People brag about it,” free parking, she said. “People think about it as a unique amenity that differentiates us from other cities.”

Respondents indicated they might be willing to pay a charge to park downtown, but they’d likely reduce their visits and the money they spend per visit, she said.

“Many people are saying they’d eat some place closer to home,” she said. “It changes the flavor of downtown.”

TIF extension

Bass said extension of the TIF after 2025 – the city has extended the TIF previously – should be on the table as discussions proceed, possibly at a more recent base year than 1995 to diminish the incremental taxes it would throw off in the future. He noted free parking has been a primary mission of the TIF since its inception; the TIF has used $43 million of the $70 million it’s spent so far on the garage leases.

“We need a medium-term plan to go past the rolloff of the current leases,” Bass said. “Once that’s established, then we can step back and say what happens when the TIF expires.

“It’s been extended (before). Should it be extended again, should it be extended with a broad mission, or should it be extended with a very narrow mission, parking only?” he said.

Bass also said lease renewal terms should be based in part on how much use each of the garages gets.

“The renewal of leases should have a very strong component based upon how much they are utilized for actual parking, and it should be a very reasonable deal for everybody,” Bass said. “Nobody should be getting rich off of a TIF lease.”

TIF board members are grappling with a lack of complete data from the garages – Sundance has provided detailed data on its garages, and Performing Arts has provided data on use of 777 Main – on how many visitors use the free parking.

Sundance told the TIF that 254,681 vehicles parked free in 2013 in City Center Garage 2, northeast of Bass Hall. In the Chase Bank garage, 124,008 vehicles parked free, Sundance reported. Performing Arts told the TIF that 40,470 vehicles parked free at 777 Main in fiscal 2014.

“We’re pretty certain that outside the [City Center and 777 Main] garages, most of the other garages don’t get that level of use,” Zimmerman said. “You’re subsidizing a garage, but without the expected benefits.”

The other garages with TIF-subsidized free parking are Sundance’s Chase Bank building, The Tower and City Place. The Tower and City Place have no recent data, Johnson, the TIF administrator, said.

The county and City Place north garages “are not well-placed geographically,” Johnson said.

Those get maximum use during big annual events such as the Main Street Fort Worth Arts Festival and Parade of Lights, when all of the garages are full, he said. The City Place south garage – closer to the heart of downtown – is not part of the free parking lease.

Some TIF board members have raised the question of whether it would be possible to get downtown visitors to use other TIF-subsidized free garages downtown, if the TIF let some of the garage leases expire.

Bass said that wouldn’t work well. If the 777 Main lease expired, Bass Hall patrons would likely try and move to the City Center garages, which wouldn’t be able to handle the traffic, he said.

Kennedy said many Bass Hall patrons may not be able to walk longer distances to and from the other garages.

“I think the reality is people will not walk three or four blocks,” she said. “We’re not in New York City. We’re not in a city where people think nothing of walking 15 blocks.”

The City Center garage leases expired Sept. 1, but were extended by the TIF board until Nov. 30. The Tower lease expires in December 2016, the Chase Bank lease in December 2017, Tarrant County in January 2018, and City Place in December 2018.

Charles Boswell, a TIF board member, district director for State Sen. Wendy Davis, and former Fort Worth city manager, said he has a number of questions.

“I have come to take it for granted,” Boswell, who said he’s used free parking at 777 Main and two or three garages, said in an interview. “This free parking is good, but it’s coming at a price. What are the tradeoffs? Is it all or nothing? Is there a price level that makes sense?”

TIF members interviewed agreed the board will be a central player in coming up with the long-term solution.

Free parking provided by the TIF “will end at some point,” Boswell said. “We need to have a solution.”

“We’re looking at all of this very seriously,” City Council member Ann Zadeh, a board member, said in an interview. That includes the list of competing needs.

“They’re all very important to a lot of stakeholders as well,” she said.

Kennedy, the Performing Arts CEO, said those are good questions.

“The reality is the money exists,” she said. “It’s fair to ask, what else would it be spent on that would have the same economic impact” as free downtown parking.

Robert Francis
Robert is a Fort Worth native and longtime editor of the Fort Worth Business Press. He is a former president of the local Society of Professional Journalists and was a freelancer for a variety of newspapers, weeklies and magazines, including American Way, BrandWeek and InformatonWeek. A graduate of TCU, Robert has held a variety of writing and editing positions at publications such as the Grand Prairie Daily News and InfoWorld. He is also a musician and playwright.

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