Parking garage showdown on Tuesday

This Tuesday, January 14, city council will decide whether to abandon (destroy) a portion of Sixth Street to accommodate a parking garage that is being designed from the beginning in violation of the Downtown Master Plan. But if the council votes down the abandonment, this project will be stopped.

On Tuesday there’s a workshop at 2:30 pm, with the entire background of this proposal to be presented as Item A, first on the agenda. In the evening session at 6 pm, the Second Reading of the ordinance to abandon that portion of Sixth Street will occur, late in the proceedings as Item V of the agenda. Both meetings take place in the new building at 510 West 9th Street.

If you oppose this proposal you should watch or attend the workshop if you can in order to learn more, but you absolutely must attend the evening session to help defeat this project that will damage the Square and waste even more of our money than was previously budgeted.

If you remember the proposed project at the Eats on Eighth site that horrified residents with its monstrous scale, all you need to know is that this proposal is equal to that in size, but this time even closer to the Courthouse. It will be a disaster and we must stop it to restore intelligent planning to our Square.

The conversation between townspeople and government to create improved parking in the downtown has been halted since 2015, by city council’s love of secrecy. As this workshop will reveal at last, city council has been planning our downtown parking future in secret, in executive sessions tied to property sales to private enterprise.

You can read and download the staff presentation to be made at the workshop here [PDF]:
https://georgetowntx.novusagenda.com/AgendaPublic/AttachmentViewer.ashx?AttachmentID=37962&ItemID=26395

Initiating this public works project in executive session is possibly a violation of state law – this remains to be answered. But this explains much about where this proposal came from without any public knowledge. City government has had much time to become enamored of this project, without any public input, and despite its huge size, its violation of code, and its cost overruns that are already becoming visible. This project has grown in the dark for two years, and only now are we the townspeople being informed of all its aspects.
Much is at stake, and if you are already concerned, come to the meetings if only to offer moral support and even an extra 3 minutes for those who, like me, could use to the extra time to try to stop council from making this huge mistake.

If you want to know more, or want ammunition to fight this proposal, read on. There’s a lot of information that the Sun and concerned citizens have pieced together on this project.

MORE INFORMATION

The following may be long, but it’s the straight story in a twisted tale. By the way, this assumes that you read our newspaper of record, and if you don’t you should. There’s much valuable discussion there. Some of the information following will refer to Sun reports.

What follows deals with:

  • Scale of the project
  • How the site was Chosen
  • Downtown parking in general
  • Secrecy by city council
  • Costs – and true costs
  • Timeline of events

Size and Scale

The Eats on Eighth project was opposed by an overwhelming majority of concerned residents. Approval was denied by HARC and city council on appeal supported the HARC denial. On the corner of 8th and Church, this site falls in Area 2 of the Downtown Overlay District.

The parking garage falls in Area 1. This is the magic 9 blocks of the core of downtown, in which the Courthouse is the very heart. Area 1 is considered as being even more restricted than Area 2. And the garage as proposed is a similar scale as the Eats proposal. It’s larger than the the Courthouse and blocks the view of the Square.

What happens if this moves forward and HARC denies approval? Will city council appeal the decision to itself? This logical absurdity stems from the fact that city council and staff have simply not regarded the master plan requirements as binding on them. Citizens must tell them that they are not immune from the requirements of our planning laws.

Assistant City Manager Laurie Brewer is quoted in the Sun of 11/20/2019 as saying that the design specification for the garage will call for it to comply fully with design guidelines. And yet page 45 of the workshop presentation linked above shows that the footprint of the initial Schematic Design already violates the Downtown Master Plan, in forcing the closure of part of Sixth Street.

The presentation seems almost proud that although the proposal violates one provision of the master plan, it doesn’t violate any others. This is like saying, “Officer, I did break this law, but look at all these other laws I didn’t break!” How far do any of us think we could get with such specious reasoning? The presentation is insulting in its logic. The fact is that the initial design has failed.

Regardless of what any subsequent design achieves, the project has already failed to comply with our downtown project laws. The project itself has already failed. Fortunately it’s only cost us $50,000. It’s time to stop now. We are asking to abandon part of Sixth Street precisely because this site cannot accommodate a parking garage.

We should never have to appear at council to argue this point. This reading to abandon a part of a very necessary street should never have happened. The council hearing itself is a recognition that the proposal doesn’t work. The abandonment of Sixth Street must be voted down.

Choice of Site

The only two formal sources for parking lot site selection are the Downtown Master Plan, which identifies four potential sites for a city parking garage, and the 2015 Carl Walker Parking Study. Neither of these documents identified 6th & Main.

Prior to the revelations contained in the upcoming workshop presentation, the only rationale ever presented formally by the city for the site has been that it “fit our budget of $5 million.” That’s it.

This site has never in the history of downtown development been seriously considered as a viable parking garage. It has been discussed briefly, but only with substantial underground holding capacity. The cost of going underground is so prohibitive for such a prime piece of property that it has always obvious to every private developer that it could generate far greater returns in a different usage.

Parking in Downtown

How bad is the parking situation in downtown? The latest issue of the Sun (1/12/2020) offers a fine editorial illustrating how there will always be voices clamoring for more parking. For hard data we can turn to the last parking study conducted, in 2015, which is excerpted on page 11 of the workshop presentation linked above.

This shows the parking lot density on a First Friday, and concludes that because lots and streets that follow the run off businesses around the Square are full, this means we need more parking along that section. But notice all the toehr lots, some equally close to the Square that are as little as 46% and 60% utilized.

There’s plenty of parking. There’s just not an attractive and meaningful way to show people where it is or attract them to park and walk.

Would people walk? Page 8 of the presentation cites the study as showing 86% of downtown customers would walk 1-2 blocks from their car. In fact these numbers are actually 1-3 blocks or farther. People are very willing to walk – much more willing than city council is being told in staff’s presentation.

This finding brings in many more existing parking solutions, with adequate wayfaring and signage. City staff got the numbers wrong in this documented. Laurie Brewer was corrected by the Steering Committee last week, and she acknowledged the error. One assumes she will correct these numbers when she presents to council.

If we accept that parking is a utility, not a location, then we can also look at our failure to deliver that parking service to the consumer – e.g. through a shuttle system. The 2015 study recommended that we look into trolley service to connect the parking lots. City council has been completely delinquent by not following up with this recommendation.

We can also think of expanding the business footprint further out to the existing parking, instead of trying to cram everything in one small space. People will walk. These walkways are golden opportunities for more business to attract passing foot traffic.

Imagination has been shut down because city government has cut off the open dialog with the townspeople. The council must be encouraged to put aside secrecy and reopen the town conversation on the downtown project.

Secrecy

Has the city operated in secrecy over this parking garage project? The Sun newspaper and several individuals have all tried to find out how this site was formally chosen. Only now, from the nagging of concerned parties, is the city revealing that it was chosen in executive session, along with several projects to sell city property.

Page 27 of the presentation cites:

Interest and preliminary feasibility for development of public parking lots (discussed in Executive Session 2017-2018)

Page 28 cites:

Downtown Building Sales –2017 and 2018

  • City Council sold Council Chambers and City Hall
    • Downtown Building Sales (2018)
      • Utility evaluations and ROW changes based on sales
        • Council Chambers property line moved to the North
      • Approved changes based on garage at 6th and Main

We still don’t know what the council reasoning is that went into this choice of site. This will be described at the council workshop – if it’s fully explained then, we will have to insist on it in the evening session.

The logic is pretty simple here. State law allows a city council to go into executive session to discuss matters that have that privilege, as I’ll show below. But a public-works project doesn’t seem to have that privilege.

So my reasoning is that the garage project either, as a public works project, has no privilege to be in executive session, or it’s tied to a public-private venture that does have that privilege. If it has no privilege, the minutes need to be disclosed. If it does have privilege, why hasn’t this fact been disclosed?

Is there a (presumably accidental but nonetheless criminal) violation of state law at play here?

Here’s what Texas says the council can and cannot do – from the OAG’s 2018 Open Meetings Handbook, page 46:

“2. Section 551.072. Deliberations about Real Property
Section 551.072 authorizes a governmental body to deliberate in executive session on certain matters concerning real property. It provides as follows:
A governmental body may conduct a closed meeting to deliberate the purchase, exchange, lease, or value of real property if deliberation in an open meeting would have a detrimental effect on the position of the governmental body in negotiations with a third person.
Section 551.072 permits an executive session only where public discussion of the subject would have a detrimental effect on the governmental body’s negotiating position with respect to a third party.310 Where a court found that open discussion would not be detrimental to a city’s negotiations, a closed session under this provision was not permitted. It does not allow a governmental body to “cut a deal in private, devoid of public input or debate.”
A governmental body’s discussion of nonmonetary attributes of property to be purchased that relate to the property’s value may fall within this exception if deliberating in open session would detrimentally affect subsequent negotiations.”

The council will have be very precise in explaining what happened in 2017 and 2018 behind closed doors and in privileged discussion.

Cost

Prior to these revelations, the city had only formally said that the 6th & Main site was chosen because it fit our budget of $5 million. We know already that the project is estimated at more than $6 million. I’ve seen estimates that citizens will present on Tuesday showing the true cost can easily approach $8-9 million. So what happens to the rationale of fitting the $5 million budget?

The revelations of cost in the workshop will be important. The city is claiming a net gain of some 175 new parking spaces. I’ve seen better calculations of 135 new spaces. Even at 175 spaces, and a low cost of $6 million, that’s $34,000 per new parking space.

Industry standard costs for parking spaces are less than $26,000. Even at the optimistic numbers claimed by the city, we are being ripped off for cost. At a more likely number of 135 new parking spaces, and a more likely cost of $8 million, the per-space cost is closer to $60,000. Using any figures, the cost is more than industry standard costs.

Can the city justify this? If you thought we were paying too much for electricity, wait until we start paying for these unnecessary parking spaces!

Timeline

For your reference, this is the timeline that seems to pertain:

  • Year 2015
    • The last formal parking study, and the last public involvement.
  • Years 2017-2018
    • Council discusses parking solutions for downtown, as well as selling the city properties at 7th & Main and at 8th & Church.
  • Budget Workshop, July 17, 2018
    • One line item appears for the parking garage
      • With a mention at page 306 of 345-page Budget Workbook
  • WGI Engineer’s Schematic Design Contract
    • Signed Tuesday, October 2, 2018
    • Has a contract Value of $49,850 – $250 below the limit requiring a city council hearing
    • Project Name on Contract is “7th & Main Parking Garage” even though it’s located at 6th & Main.
    • “7th & Main” is the address of the former Council Chambers, considered for sale by the city in executive session.
  • Contract to sell the Council Chambers building (“7th & Main”) – next door to proposed parking garage.
    • Council approves contract Tuesday, October 9, 2018 (one week after the Engineering Contract is signed).
  • Staff Presentation of the WGI Schematic Design Phase Documents
    • In city council workshop, January 22, 2019
    • Staff presents completed Schematic Design Phase of Parking Garage
    • And requests to finalize design and start construction bidding for Summer 2019 construction
    • Council pushes back
      • Has begun to receive concerned communications from citizens

Conclusion

The city council will have to be very diligent on Tuesday to examine exactly what took place in the executive sessions that gave rise to the proposal of 6th & Main as a parking garage. What exactly gives substance to this initiative? Why was it necessary to keep it confidential?

These questions must be answered to the satisfaction of the public record.

The final question is clear – is this garage really necessary? How about if we scrap this wasteful plan, and go back to transparent government in touch with its citizens, and resume the conversation about what’s really best for downtown?

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