New grocery store, 300 luxury apartments could come downtown as part of parking deal

Port Authority may control city's garages, meters

CINCINNATI - Cincinnati City Manager Milton Dohoney Jr. unveiled a proposal Tuesday for the city's parking system to be operated by the Port Authority, and part of the revenue it would generate would be used to help build a grocery store downtown.

Under the proposal, the city would get $92 million in an upfront payment, along with annual payments of $3 million that would gradually increase over time.

The agreement with the Port of Greater Cincinnati Development Authority would last for 30 years for on-street parking and up to 50 years for garages.

If City Council approves the deal, it would allocate $12 million of the upfront $92 million to renovate Tower Place Mall and demolish the adjacent garage at Fourth and Race streets. A new structure containing a 15,000-square-foot grocery store and 300 luxury apartments would be built there, along with 1,000 new parking spaces.

Only street-level retail would remain at Tower Place.

"What we're bringing you today is a public-public partnership," Dohoney told City Council's finance committee. After weeks of negotiations, he unveiled the proposal Tuesday at the committee's meeting.

The deal would affect seven garages and lots owned by the city, along with hundreds of parking meters.

Late last year, Dohoney proposed contracting out the parking system to a private company as a way to help close the city's $34 million deficit.

But a backlash by some council members, residents and businesses led Dohoney to seek a deal with the Port Authority instead. Under the proposal, an advisory board of appointees would be created that would oversee any potential rate increases or changes to operating hours.

"At the end of this deal, should you chose to accept it, the public will be in control of the Cincinnati parking function," Dohoney told City Council.

Council will hold two public hearings on the proposal on Feb. 25 and Feb. 27. The group then likely will make a decision at its March 6 meeting.

Whether to contract parking services has become a major issue in this year's mayoral race between current Vice Mayor Roxanne Qualls and her opponent, ex-Councilman John Cranley.

Qualls accused some people of using "scare tactics" to generate opposition to the deal. She said allegations the city would allow rates to be increased significantly or step up parking enforcement are unfounded.

"There is a lot of misinformation out there, and there will continue to be a lot of misinformation put out there," Qualls said.

Meanwhile, Cranley stood by his statements that "aggressive enforcement" was the only way to make the deal financially sound.

As part of the proposal, the Port Authority would get funding from the city's parking tickets and the city would get a portion of the fees paid on those tickets.

"The city plans to blow through $92 million in two years, try to play Santa Claus before the election, then leave to the rest of us the enforcement regime that will hurt small business in the city for 30 years," Cranley said. "[It's] playing politics to get through the election at the expense of entire generation."

On-street parking at meters would stay at $2 per hour downtown and 75 cents per hour in neighborhoods, with a cap on any potential rate increases. Any rate hikes or new meters would be decided by an advisory board of appointees under the new proposal.

Any rate hikes must be limited to either three percent annually or the Consumer Price Index, whichever is higher. Because rate hikes would only be done in 25-cent increments, it means the first rate hike probably wouldn't occur for at least three years, Dohoney said.

Hours of operation under the proposal for on-street parking meters would be 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. downtown and 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. in neighborhoods, although Sundays and holidays would remain free.

About 32 city workers in parking services would all get new city jobs at the same pay rate under the proposal as part of a tentative deal with their union, AFSCME, Dohoney said.

The city would need to make $20 million in upgrades now and $90 million over the span of the deal to modernize parking around the city, which would include the ability to pay via smartphone. Also, solar-powered meters and other upgrades would be installed.

With the new parking meters, parkers would be able to use a smartphone application that would give them a text message 10 minutes before their time is up and give the option to pay for more time, if needed. Dohoney said the app would be more convenient for parkers and help reduce the number of tickets issued.

Regarding off-street parking, rates for the first hour and monthly rates would not be changed, but rates would change in the 2-8 hour period. What the rate change would be wasn't revealed at Tuesday's meeting.

The city says it will use the rest of the upfront revenue it receives from this proposal to jumpstart various development projects around the city including:

- $20 million to support building an interchange at Interstate -71 and Martin Luther Kingdrive in the uptown area (which would allow construction to be completed in 3-4 years, rather than 7-10);
- $4 million to build the Vine Street steps at Smale Park and install a carousel there;
- $3 million toward ibuying land along the Wasson right-of-way, to complete a bicycle trail (affecting Evanston, Hyde Park, Mt. Lookout and Oakley)

The proposal wouldn't end the structural imbalance in the city's budget that has caused deficits in recent years, Dohoney said. Instead, it tries to jumpstart development to quicken residential and business growth to broaden the city's tax base.

"This deal, no matter what we did, could not resolve all of our issues," the city manager said. "It's not of the magnitude to do that."

Councilman P.G. Sittenfield was skeptical of the deal's numbers coming to fruition.

"All of this sounds great, but I do approach this with a large and healthy degree of skepticism," Sittenfield said.

Councilman Chris Smitherman said he also isn't sure about the deal, but after hearing the proposal, is considering it as a possibility more than he was.

"I started at an absolute no. Now I am at no. There has been progress," Smitherman said.

Here is a link to more details about the proposal on the city's website.

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