Article in The Albuquerque Tribune: Parking plight

If it’s raining, snowing or dark out, don’t ask Albuquerque resident Dee Dickson to walk more than a block from her Downtown office to her car.

Even on a recent Friday afternoon, the warm air stuffed with sunlight, Dickson was pleased to leave her job in City Hall and see her car only a block away.

“I’m tired after work,” Dickson says. “I don’t want to have to walk too far.”

She’s not alone.

As more companies cast their curiosity toward Albuquerque’s urban core, finding enough available spaces – in just the right spot – poses challenges to the city’s infrastructure in a time when a few-block walk remains foreign.

“(Our) employees aren’t happy about . . . the four or five blocks they’re currently walking,” says Patrick O’Neal, president and CEO of Sento Corp., which opened a Downtown call center in late 2005. “To anybody thinking about coming Downtown, especially with any sizable number of people, parking is going to be major.”

Circulate

It’s not that parking spaces are lacking – a 2002 study showed 18,592 were available Downtown, many of which go unused – but how spread out they are, and how close they rest to an office in need.

“Coming up with 300 spaces based on where they’re at is hard,” says Allen Lewis, president of United Enterprises, which owns one Downtown lot and manages roughly 20 more. “We have been really busy lately.”

When a company calls, he categorizes their parking lot options as Class A – within three blocks of the company’s location – or Class B, within six blocks. Forget about seven blocks or more.

“We don’t even deal with that,” he says. “That’s just too far away for people. Three blocks is really a limit for most people. Don’t ask me why. We’ve just found that to be very true.”

Luisa Casso, president of the Downtown Action Team, has seen the same.

“If people have to walk more than two blocks,” she says, “they sort of frown on that.”

The nonprofit dedicated to revitalizing Downtown puts forth, along with the city, this possible solution: a circulator.

The circulator – which might be launched in August – would be a city bus dedicated to moving people around Downtown.

“It’s going to open up the possibilities of parking structures that are farther out of the core and also surface parking lots that are on the outlying parts of the core, so people are only walking a block or two,” Casso says.

But she points out some parking pressures are already being relieved with expanding public transportation options.

Look at the Rapid Ride bus service, the planned modern street car and Rail Runner commuter train, she says, especially with the rising price of gas.

“As more and more people start seeking alternatives to driving their car . . . we won’t need as much parking,” she says. “That’s not to say finding parking to attract new businesses is going to disappear. We’re still going to need to work with public and private entities to figure out how to park everyone.”

Circling

Gary Tonjes, president of Albuquerque Economic Development, says he’s talking with three companies that are considering a Downtown location, and “making sure there is parking to support their operation is critical in each instance.”

One company – the subsidiary of a major corporation that Tonjes said he couldn’t name – asked for 300 spaces initially, he says, and 800 more later. A second company wants 175 spaces. The third wants 300 spaces, though only half that initially.

“I don’t doubt that we could get to that number, but the question will be at what price and from what distance,” he says. “The key factors are going to be proximity to whatever the subject building is as well as the monthly cost associated with each of those.”

Speed is another factor.

“They (companies) don’t linger very long in consideration of a Downtown property . . . unless there is certainty of or high degree of likelihood of parking to support them,” Tonjes says.

He notes other transportation options – such as trains, busses and streetcars – influence a company’s evaluation of a location.

“All of those things matter and are thrown into the mix for consideration,” Tonjes says. “The better the transportation network you have, the fewer the complaints, and the fewer the obstacles to the employees you want to recruit.”

After the dream

Tom Clark, executive vice president of the Metro Denver Economic Development Corp. and the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, knows the role transportation can play in bringing businesses to a city.

He’s seen interest boom in southeast Denver as a new 19-mile light rail line nears its opening day in November.

“It’s . . . driving corporate location decisions throughout the region,” he says. “We’ve seen a significant increase in corporate interest along the southeast corridor.”

The new light rail line is part of a $1.67 billion construction project that began in 2001 to further help people get around Denver. It will join a light rail system already up and running.

“I believe congestion is a major issue in every company’s location decision,” Clark says. “Cities that have taken steps to improve transportation, particularly alternatives, seem to have a lot more interest in them than other cities. It’s certainly been our case.”

Before the project launched, Clark says he and other high-level Denver and Colorado officials visited CEOs in Silicon Valley to see how they handled growth, economic development and transportation needs. One idea stuck.

“He (a Silicon Valley CEO) said, `Think of your dream and build your infrastructure 25 years beyond it,’ ” Clark recalls. “It helped us determine we had to get focused on building out this entire system at one time.”

The end goal in Denver, Clark says, is a transportation system that makes the “entire labor force in the region accessible to any employer in any other place in the region.” It could – many years down the line – connect with neighboring states.

Such projects are key to weaning people away from cars, a mode of transportation he warns will always cause parking space woes.

“The only way we can reduce our dependency (on cars),” he says, “is to provide alternatives.”

FACTBOX: GOT SPACE?

A 2002 study of Downtown showed 18,592 parking spaces – 1,568 of them on the street – filling the area bounded by Mountain Road to the north, Coal Avenue to the south, Eighth Street to the west and the railroad tracks to the east.

But you can’t count every space as available, according to the company that did the study. Why? When 90 percent of parking spaces become full, drivers stop using them or go elsewhere. That means Downtown effectively offers 16,733 parking spaces.

The study found 60.7 percent of parking spaces were used overall, leaving 6,584 spaces open.

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