Parking Garage NIMBY Alert

By Dan Bertolet July 6, 2010

Here's a case that's screaming for some good old fashioned NIBMYism: King County wants to put a a five-story, above-grade parking garage for 560 cars in the middle of the Central District.

For the past several years the county has been working on plans to replace two Youth Service Center court buildings and redevelop other portions of a 9-acre site located between 12th Ave, 14th Ave, Spruce St, and Remington Ct. Last April, the county presented three design options to the public; all three included the massive concrete garage (one of the options is shown in the rendering below).

The current surface lot on the site holds 287 cars, and the proposed new parking structure would nearly double that.

The first question is, why so many parking stalls?  The new court building (assuming the county comes up with the money to replace it; more on that later) will be larger---the preferred option (Scenario 5.5) increases the number of courtrooms from the existing 7 to 15. But the project's Facilities Master Plan states that Seattle code would only require 240 stalls.

The second question is, why not underground? According to CD News, county officials told attendees at the public meeting they're not considering underground parking because it's too expensive. But that's walk that doesn't live up to the county's sustainability talk.

Moreover, the Facilities Master Plan for the replacement estimates that below-grade parking only costs about 10 percent more than above-grade garage parking. Lose about 60 stalls and you can go underground at no additional cost. And assuming the parking goes under the new court building, it would free up a valuable site for private development.

The county's decision to provide so much parking and to put it above ground sets an embarrassingly bad example. Since the 1990s, one of Seattle's foremost sustainability strategies has been to create mixed-use urban villages that help reduce reliance on cars. Giant parking structures that create alienating dead zones for pedestrians and encourage car use are pure anathema to that strategy.

Furthermore, it is well known that road transportation is the region's single largest source of greenhouse gas emissions. Number one on King County's own list of "what you can do to reduce greenhouse gases now" reads, "Bus, bike or walk instead of driving." Needless to say, we won't further that goal by subsidizing parking.

And the expense is not trivial. Assuming a typical cost of $40,000 per stall, the proposed 560-stall garage would cost $22 million, or roughly one sixth of the $137 million total project cost. That sum would buy a boatload of bus passes. Or even put a significant dent in the price tag of new bus service down 12th Ave.

Of course, the Youth Service Center Court will need some parking to function, but I can't help thinking that the county could be a lot more proactive about minimizing it. What assumptions are being made about employee commuting habits and how they are likely to change in the future? Are there opportunities for sharing parking with the new housing that is proposed for the site?

Because the county's budget is so tight, the King County Council is considering a sales tax hike for the fall ballot to raise funds to pay for the Youth Services Center redevelopment. That tax is in addition to a 0.2 percent tax increase to pay for criminal justice. (However, that sales tax increase, as Erica has noted, has a slim shot at making it on the ballot this year; King County Council member Larry Phillips, one of five Democrats whose support any ballot measure will need, has balked at raising the sales tax a total of 0.3 percent).

Given the short-term motivation to cut costs, along with the longer term goals of creating a more sustainable Seattle and cutting greenhouse gas emissions, the reduction of on-site parking is an ideal win-win move, and King County ought to be to trying harder to make it happen.
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