Monday, April 17, 2006

Cheap parking may hurt light rail--the story behind the story

Today's Arizona Republic has a story reporting that the large supply of cheap parking downtown may hurt the light rail project, as people would prefer to drive their cars than use mass transit.

The real irony here is that it was deception by the City of Phoenix that allowed it to build a massive parking garage across the street from Bank One Ballpark (now Chase Stadium). By falsely claiming that the 3,000-space parking garage was necessary for the Arizona Science Center and the Civic Plaza, the city effectively gave a $40 million gift to Arizona Diamondbacks owner Jerry Colangelo. The ballpark did not have sufficient parking for itself, but because it would require voter approval for any additional spending under Proposition 200, the city hired Kaku Associates to conduct a study to determine the need for spaces for the Arizona Science Center, and jiggered the assumptions of the study until they got the result they wanted for the ballpark. The February 1994 draft report from Kaku stated that "If the baseball stadium is not built, it would be difficult to justify a parking garage of any size within the study area in general." The City then told Kaku to change its assumptions, by disregarding existing parking spaces outside a two-block radius from the Science Center, assuming that crowds to the Civic Plaza convention center would double, and pretending that the city would also build a downtown aquarium. Adding these assumptions led to the conclusion in June 1995--in the seventh draft of the study--that there would be 1,300-1,600 space parking deficit, and therefore the city could go ahead and build a parking garage without voter approval.

Oh, but there was one more catch--the land where they wanted to build the garage was the site of the Greyhound bus terminal, on land owned by the Dial (now Viad) Corporation. The city condemned the Greyhound site and passed a zoning change to prevent Greyhound from relocating to another site downtown. In Greyhound's legal response, they pointed out the obvious fact that the city was cheating in its argument for the parking garage, stating "The city's arrogance in proceeding to do whatever it damn well pleases by pretending that the garage is for the Civic Plaza and not the baseball stadium ought to offend the sensibilities of any honest thinking individual." They further pointed out that the city's action was a violation of Proposition 200 whether the parking garage was for the ballpark or for the convention center--to which the city responded that the Civic Plaza and Convention Center is not actually a convention center, because only 5.8% of attendance at Civic Plaza events between 1988 and 1995 was related to conventions.

In the end, the city offered Greyhound a settlement that it accepted, and got its parking garage on the site, which loses an average of $283,000 a month, paid for by the city (and indirectly by its residents).

The city has continued to engage in deals which largely supply private benefits directly to Jerry Colangelo, most recently with a similar deal for the city to spend millions to build a hotel downtown--even though similar projects in other cities have lost money.

Phoenix City Manager Frank Fairbanks and former Deputy City Manager Sheryl Scully (now City Manager of San Antonio, Texas) are two of the main people to thank for these boondoggles.

(Most of the above is derived from the excellent reporting of John Dougherty of Phoenix's New Times weekly newspaper. For some reason, the Arizona Republic can almost never be counted on to dig up and provide such information.)

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