Parking garage the key to Bay Street redevelopment

Bob Meadows has provided what is perhaps the most articulate argument to date against the idea of constructing a new parking garage in downtown Port Orchard.

His June 26 column (“Would a parking lot revitalize Bay Street?”) demonstrates the usual analytical skills and common sense logic he applies to most subjects.

However, Bob is apparently unaware of a few facts that could make a difference in his view of the need for the proposed garage.

There has been lots of private sector interest in the redevelopment of downtown. The economy has put a damper on a large part of it — for now — but the economy is cyclical, so the interest will return when the economic climate improves because the Port Orchard waterfront offers one of the last redevelopment opportunities in the Puget Sound region.

For starters, one appropriate economic development generator for downtown would be a grocery store — something significantly larger than a mini-mart, but smaller than a Safeway or Albertsons.

Downtown residents and visiting boaters alike have clamored for one for years. The nearest grocery store is approximately for miles away. Another is a full-service marine supply store. Located within sight of hundreds of boats, this would seem like a no-brainer, since the nearest ones are in East Bremerton and Gig Harbor.

Two different grocery chains and a major marine supply retailer have expressed interest in locating outlets here. At the invitation of the city, they have sent representatives to have a look at Port Orchard and have met with me, city staff, and a small number of downtown merchants.

However, all cited the lack of parking as the main reason for declining to locate here.

All have indicated that if the parking problem were solved, they would be open to revisiting the possibilities. When shown the proposed design of the garage and asked if that would be an acceptable solution, all answered in the affirmative.

Likewise, there have been several developers who have attempted to purchase large parts of our downtown for redevelopment.

The major interest has been in developing mixed-use projects (retail at the Bay Street level and residential and business uses above) that would include purchasing all of the buildings on Bay Street between Sidney and Frederick Streets.

There has been great interest to do this on both sides of Bay Street from different developers, but the main obstacles have been a refusal by three specific property owners to sell — and, of course, parking.

However, there have also been proposed projects that could go forward even without the buildings where the owners are declining to sell.

City development rules dictate that new residential units must have 1.5 parking stalls per unit. This means given the confines of the space available, it would be difficult to redevelop profitably.

However, given the opportunity to purchase stalls in the proposed parking garage — especially on the upland side of Bay Street — developers acknowledge the projects once again become financially viable.

As far as the library is concerned, the city owns the building that houses the library and is legally obligated to provide a location for it.

It is also a major downtown pedestrian traffic generator, with more than 22,000 visitors per month.

However, the library is bursting at the seams, needing considerably more space, and the building is in a major state of disrepair.

It would cost more to repair it properly than the building is worth on the open market - which is not a prudent use of the taxpayer’s hard-earned money.

One existing downtown merchant has indicated significant interest in purchasing the library building at appraised value, tearing it down, and constructing a new building to house and expand their very successful business.

In the meantime, they would lease the existing facility back to the city at a favorable rate until the new library is ready.

Also included in the parking garage proposal is a community center and meeting room - something the city currently lacks, and sorely needs.

The Boys & Girls Club has also indicated great interest in locating a Hope Center on the site and committing a seven-figure dollar amount to the project.

It’s not a case of “if” downtown redevelopment will occur, but “when.” That’s why we need to be vigilant in our efforts to plan for, and prepare in advance, so we can make the most of the opportunity when it presents itself.

We have made great strides in that effort so far. The citizens have determined they want building heights restricted and existing views preserved.

They have made it clear they want to preserve the small town character of our downtown.

The city responded by passing the Downtown Overlay District (DOD) ordinance, which limits building heights to 39 feet maximum on the waterfront side of Bay Street and 55 feet maximum on the upland side, while implementing design standards for new construction that maintain a historic flavor.

The permitting process has been completely overhauled so it is now the fastest in the county, as well as easy and certain.

While development rules will not be bent and are strictly enforced, they no longer change in the middle of a project, either — something Port Orchard had a bad reputation for doing in the past, and significantly reduced interest in downtown redevelopment.

The parking garage is the missing piece, and will be the glue to bind all of these efforts together.

Financing will come through a combination of sources — some public, such as the federal and state government, grants, partnerships with other local public agencies, and low-interest loans.

Other funding will come from private sector sources, such as developers proposing downtown projects that require additional parking.

Port Orchard residents will also get a new downtown waterfront park that will generate additional pedestrian traffic, which will result in increased business for downtown merchants and increased sales tax revenue for the city.

Given all of these facts, it appears to the city that the proposed garage, library and community center is a win-win situation that will allow our town to grow in a way we have control of, and preserve our small town atmosphere without leaving us at the mercy of outside developers who don’t have our long term best interests at heart.

Lary Coppola is the mayor of Port Orchard.

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