A study is underway that will try to answer some basic questions about parking Downtown. Although different groups and companies have tracked metrics for the area’s garages and parking lots over the years, it can be surprisingly hard to find numbers that everyone agrees on, especially given the (continuing) disruption to traditional commuting patterns caused by the pandemic.

The Columbus Downtown Development Corporation (CDDC) is the entity heading up the new study, which should be complete by the end of the year, according to Amy Taylor, the organizations’s president.

Here are some of the questions that the study will attempt to answer:

  • How many total spaces are there, including garages, surface lots and on-street parking?
  • How is that inventory divided up among the different sectors of Downtown?
  • How often (and on which days and at which time of day) are those spaces sitting empty?
  • Who is using the spaces (office workers, residents, visitors, etc)?

The City of Columbus, in its 2019 Strategic Parking Plan, estimates that there are “over 100,000” off-street parking spaces Downtown.

Marc Conte, Executive Director of the Capital Crossroads and Discovery Special Improvement Districts, puts the number closer to 79,000. He says that much of the difference between the two estimates can be attributed to geography – the city’s estimate includes areas that are not within Downtown proper – but also that the data underlying both numbers have not been updated recently, so the new study will be helpful in providing some numbers that everyone can agree on.

Whatever the exact top-line number ends up being, there seems to be a consensus developing that Downtown – with about 214 acres of land (or 27 percent of its total area) devoted to surface parking lots – would be better off with fewer parking lots and significantly more buildings.

The question is, how do we make that happen?

In October of last year, after a year-long process led by the CDDC, City Council officially signed off on the main concepts of the 2022 Downtown Strategic Plan (the full document has yet to be released publicly). A big part of the plan, and something that has been emphasized consistently both by elected officials and by CDDC’s leadership team, is its ambitious goal for density – 40,000 people living Downtown and 120,000 people working there by 2040 (the population currently stands at 11,200, according to the CDDC).

Visuals shown during the planning process show the potential to transform different sectors of Downtown by building on existing parking lots. Suggested in those presentations was the need for new parking garages to encourage the new development (one bullet point reads; “continue to find methods of providing public parking structures with city support to unlock Downtown redevelopment potential”).

Parking garages are extremely expensive to build, though. One estimate, from a 2021 study (pdf) by builder WGI, put the median construction cost for a new parking structure at $25,700 per space.

How Full are those Lots and Garages?

Although we’ll have to wait until the end of the year for the full report, we do have some limited numbers that can give us an idea of how full Downtown’s garages and surface lots are now.

We recently checked in with developer Brad DeHays, of Connect Realty, who bought and renovated the 564-space garage at 56 E. Long St. in 2016.

“The demand for the garage is starting to come back,” he says. “Our surface lots rebounded faster than the garage, [where] we are about 70 percent of our pre-COVID occupancy.”

But location matters, especially given the scattered and still-changing nature of the office market – some buildings that used to be full of office workers five days a week are now mostly empty, while others have lots of hybrid workers, so their occupancy peaks mid-week. Others, like the Continental Centre and the PNC Building, are being transformed from pure office towers into mixed-use developments with hundreds of residential units.

The city owns and operates five public parking garages Downtown, according to Justin Goodwin, Mobility & Parking Division Administrator. One of those structures – the Fourth & Elm Garage, at 78 N. Fourth St. – is located across the street from the Continental Centre. With that building empty, the garage’s occupancy has “hovered just above 50 percent,” Goodwin says.

The city’s RiverSouth Garage, at 232 S. Front St., has been doing better, with an occupancy rate of over 75 percent in the second half of 2022, which is similar to what it was pre-pandemic.

Goodwin did not provide usage numbers for the city’s other garages, but two of them are brand new – the 1,400-space Starling Street Garage, located on the Scioto Peninsula, and the 680-space Astor Park Garage next to Lower.com Field (the other one is the underground garage next to COSI).

The city only controls a small fraction of the parking Downtown – most of the area’s lots and garages are privately owned and managed. The parking management companies we checked in with were unwilling to share numbers about how well-utilized their lots and garages are, but, anecdotally, it seems like there are plenty of spaces sitting empty in existing garages.

According to Conte’s figures, about 60 percent of the parking spaces Downtown are located in garages, meaning that even if every surface parking lot were magically developed overnight with housing or offices or mixed-use projects (and if those new buildings provided no new parking of their own) there would still be nearly 50,000 parking spots available in existing garages. And the truth is, hardly any new projects in Downtown Columbus are developed without parking – most provide parking at a rate close to one space per unit.

But even if all those existing garages start filling up, the question remains; do we need to build more (at the city’s expense) to encourage the redevelopment of our remaining surface parking lots?

A Real Life Example

Last year, when the planning process for the CDDC’s plan was just getting started, we started looking for good examples of other cities that had invested in quality bike infrastructure, and were surprised to find that Calgary was one of the best and most comparable ones that we could find. Not only had the Canadian city successfully established a protected bike land network in its central core, but it had so much in common with Columbus – it’s a similar size and density overall, it’s very car-centric, both in terms of culture and the built environment, and its Downtown is just as spread out as ours (2.3 square miles in size compared to our 2.4 square miles).

So for bike infrastructure, it made a lot of sense to compare the two and look at what our Canadian counterparts have been able to accomplish. But the city may have even more to tell us about parking.

That’s because Calgary basically already has the Downtown population that we want, and they support that population with fewer parking spaces than we have right now.

As of 2019, the city had about 38,000 people living Downtown (a number it is actually now aggressively trying to increase), and only about 70,000 parking spots.

Calgary is no New York City; single occupancy vehicles are by far the most common way for people to get around, and the region is home to lots of sprawling, car-centric development. But the city has provided enough options – in the form of better bike infrastructure and relatively reliable public transit – that it’s able to fill up its Downtown with people (just like we want to do), without going on a parking garage-building spree.

In Columbus, in addition to the parking study, two city-led initiatives are underway that have the potential to dramatically impact the future of Downtown – the Bikeways and Micromobility Plan and the Downtown Multimodal Transportation Study. City officials have said that the multimodal study will look specifically at several proposals from the Downtown Strategic Plan, such as dedicated transit lanes on Third Street and two-way protected bike lanes on both Broad Street and Fourth Street. That study will also look at COTA’s proposed LinkUs Bus Rapid Transit corridors and examine how those lines will connect with other bus lines Downtown.

A Few Closing Thoughts & Opinions

If implemented, the proposals that are being considered now could make Downtown a much more comfortable, convenient and safe place to walk, ride a bike, or take transit. Will those changes mean that no one drives a car Downtown? No, but even small changes in mode share can mean big changes in the demand for parking, especially when you consider how much space is required to accommodate a car compared to a person.

Now is a good time to stop and think about how we’re going to meet the goal of 40,000 Downtown residents. Is it by building new publicly-subsidized parking garages to “unlock” the redevelopment potential of our surface lots? Or is it by encouraging the kind of small shifts in mobility that we know can result in less demand and need for car storage Downtown?

With the parking study, bike plan and multi-modal study all scheduled to wrap up either later this year or in 2024, we’ll soon find out which path Columbus is pursuing.


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