Streetcar impact: Is it time to end public subsidies for Downtown garages?

'Learn how to walk again'

CINCINNATI - It didn’t take long for developers to learn the new streetcar calculus: More people riding the rails means fewer dollars spent on parking structures.

“We’re going to two-phase the garage,” said John Heekin, a Source 3 Development LLC principal who has been working for more than a year on a $25 million residential development at Liberty and Elm streets in Over-the-Rhine.

The original plan called for a three-story parking structure with 165 spaces to serve more than 200 apartment tenants and 12,000 square feet of ground-floor retail planned on the 1.5 acre site. But that was before the Cincinnati Bell Connector started making stops caddy corner to his property.

Now, Heekin is thinking about a surface lot with 80 spaces.

Liberty and Elm project

“If the streetcar proves to be successful and we don’t need the garage, we can consider it at that time,” he said. “But we’re approved for the garage in case we need it.”

Heekin is one of several developers recalibrating their approach to parking since the streetcar opened, said John Schneider, a Cincinnati Planning Commission member and streetcar supporter.

“Parking is very un-economic,” Schneider said. “You sort of have to have it, but the reality is, in this climate, it deteriorates. It’s kind of hard to secure and people really don’t want to pay for it.”

Parking has been a barrier to development for several decades Downtown, adding millions in costs to project that in turn seek public subsidies to cover the expense. Now that the streetcar is up and running, Schneider said it’s time to consider an end to public subsidies for Downtown garages.

“There are better uses of city funds,” he said. “The city has invested in the streetcar, which connects to large parking facilities all along the line. People are going to have to learn how to walk again and pay their dollar to jump on the streetcar and take it to their car.”

It would be a major policy shift. After all, the Banks project wouldn’t exist without the taxpayer-funded garages that lifted the city’s newest neighborhood out of the flood plain. Publicly financed garages made the 84.51 building possible and enabled residential projects at Fourth and Race, Seventh and Broadway and on Sycamore Street between Seventh and Eighth.

But Schneider said Downtown workers are already taking the streetcar to work from The Banks and Findlay Market. Reds and Bengals fans have been “pre-gaming” in Over-the-Rhine.

“You will, over time, see buildings with less parking,” he said. “I’m certain of that.”

Developer Rick Greiwe is exploring several new ideas that could reduce the number of garage spaces he needs for a $50 million condominium project at the intersection of Eighth and Main streets.

Cincinnati’s Historic Conservation Board gave the project’s first phase a key approval in August after Greiwe and his partner, Terrex Development and Construction, shared plans for a 13-story tower with 30 units and a three-story garage.

Proposed condo building at 8th and Main

Greiwe said he is evaluating how many parking spaces he needs, given the city’s zoning rules and the demands of potential condo buyers. He thinks the streetcar and an increasing number of service-oriented companies Downtown will reduce demand for parking spaces assigned to residential units.

“You can put a zip car station in your building and satisfy at least a certain segment of your population,” he said. “Millennials, they don’t really care if they don’t own cars. Using a shared car like that is another thing that would lower the need for a garage.”

Another option is Divine Services Corp., a valet service that launched in Cincinnati this year.

“They operate for anybody Downtown,” Greiwe said. “If you’re late for a meeting, they’ll park your car and bring it back when you want it.”

Greiwe said every developer is “going through the same gyrations” because most of the available sites for new development are too small to accommodate big garages. But even sites that are big enough for garages could produce more condos and apartments if they don’t have to spend more than $10,000 per space on parking structures, he said.

Liberty and Elm project

At Liberty and Elm, developer John Heekin is trying to weigh the parking needs of his own project and surrounding properties before he commits to downsizing his own garage.

“People still think there a strong need for parking in the community,” he said. “I think it’s fair to say people are impressed by the streetcar but they want to see it go through Christmas, go through the summer, go through a year of operation before they can tell whether it reduces the need for parking.”

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