2016-12-01 / Front Page

Parking garage would be built on five-year history

By Anthony Aloisio
Staff Writer

BIDDEFORD – The city council’s recent vote to authorize a request for proposals for the development of a downtown parking garage picks up on a history that goes back to 2011 when the officials grappled with whether and how a garage should be built.

The path the city has taken to this point includes prior studies from engineering and architecture firms, a referendum on downtown parking meters and abundant doubts and criticism.

The city council voted unanimously at the Nov. 15 city council meeting to authorize the city manager to seek proposals from engineering firms to help the city decide where, and whether, to locate a potential parking garage.

“This is strictly a request for proposal (RFP), which means that we would be seeking qualified engineers/architects to assist the city in making decisions,” City Manager Jim Bennett said at the meeting.

According to the RFP document provided in the council packet, the scope of work that the hired engineering consultant would do would be in three phases. The first phase would be to choose and evaluate four sites in the downtown, which right now, are undetermined.

“Every site has different ground conditions which requires different design requires,” Bennett wrote in an email to the Courier. “Depending on the site, the conditions can add significant costs.”

Phase II requires the firm hired to provide design plans and specifications for the structure, including cost estimates, and also to prepare permit applications. In Phase III the firm would oversee construction.

The due date for proposals from engineering firms is Friday, Dec. 16.

The fees to be paid to the firm are to be part of the proposal and the city has not offered definite fees for the work, but will hire a firm in part based on the fees they propose.

“We want it out to be competitive, we don’t tell them the amount we have,” Economic Development Director Daniel Stevenson told the Courier. “What we do is we say, ‘We have a scope of work we want you to do,’ and they’re gonna say ‘Based off what we’re reading here, this is what we believe the deliverables are gonna be.’”

“When it’s an RFP for design services and stuff, it’s really up to the council at who they want to go with, even if they’re not the low bidder,” Stevenson said. “But typically, they want to go with the low bidder.”

What the RFP effectively means, according to Bennett, is that the city is trying to hire a professional for the purposes of consultation on initial decisions about the garage.

“The city does not have staff that is licensed to do this kind of work,” Bennett wrote in an email. “Hence a firm is needed to perform the work.”

Bennett said the firm will be hired based on its credentials, including what it has built in the past and the success of those projects, and the appropriateness of its approach to this kind of project.

In 2012 the city pursued development of a parking garage in the downtown, at which point much preliminary work and study was done towards the effort, but it ultimately stalled.

“For those of you that were on the council five years ago,” Mayor Alan Casavant said to councilors at a Nov. 1 council workshop, “we talked about a parking garage, and, trying to get ahead of the curve, and, for one reason or another, that never materialized.”

At that time, the effort got as far as predesign concept renderings and discussions on likely locations for a garage.

“What we wanted to look at is ‘what are existing parking conditions,’ and ‘what is the future of parking based on a number of assumptions,’” Stevenson told the Courier regarding the work done in 2012.

According to Stevenson, who was also Economic Development Director during that period, the city hired Winton Scott Architects to develop a system for traffic management in the downtown, and Winton Scott in turn hired Rich & Associates to do a feasibility study of development in the downtown, specifically with regard to traffic.

“Rich and Associates, they went and counted spaces in existing parking lots, a block-by-block analysis as to what existing conditions are,” Stevenson said.

“They were saying, from a feasibility standpoint ‘you’re gonna need structured parking, how the city chooses to do it is a policy decision’” Stevenson added.

That study resulted in three locations being identified as logical from a downtown development standpoint: a lot adjacent to York Street owned by mill developer Doug Sanford, a lot on Washington Street between Jefferson and Main streets, and a lot on the former Maine Energy Recovery Company property, 3 Lincoln St. Concept renderings were created for the Washington Street lot and Sanford’s lot.

According to Stevenson, the city paid $98,000 to Winton Scott for the work done, including the parking study and architecture concept work. Stevenson said the fee was paid for by leftover bond money that needed to be used for planning and transportation-related work in the downtown, and that the feasibility study will not have to be repeated now.

Regarding the work to be done at the end of 2016, Stevenson said it will pick up, in some respects, where the 2012 effort left off.

“(The 2012 work) didn’t get to that level of, ‘Did we go look at all three sites, did we do borings at all three sites, did they look at what’s beneath it, do you dig underground, do you not dig underground,’” Stevenson said. “We did not get to that level of detail.”

Although there were three sites looked at in 2012, Stevenson denied that there is yet a short-list of sites for the project today.

“That’s really a policy decision that the council will have to deal with as they work through these first steps,” Stevenson said.

“I think there are a few logical places that currently have no buildings on them,” Bennett said, “but there has been no decision, the council has not weighed in. That’s going to be part of the policy discussion the council has to have.”

“Once we get someone on board (via the RFP), then I think you’ll start to see more location-based discussions,” Stevenson said.

The work in 2012 stalled, Stevenson said, for “probably a number of things.”

“At the time there was still a number of people in the community that weren’t seeing perhaps a need for a parking structure,” Stevenson said.

Casavant told the Courier that an intervening city council election was one reason that progress on the garage stopped.

“The election was held and a number of people who ran for office were anti-garage,” Casavant said, “and so that effectively put it on the back burner.”

“(The vote to prohibit parking meters) was an important factor in it not moving forward,” Stevenson said. “At that point, we had stated publicly that we were looking at using, as one of the revenue sources, meters on the street.”

“I think that the drivers of the referendum hoped to sabotage the garage by doing that,” Casavant said.

As the Courier reported in its Nov. 13, 2014 issue, Biddeford voters passed a referendum that denied the city to install parking meters in the downtown. Paul Therrien, Biddeford resident and chairman of the recent Biddeford Charter Commission, was the main opponent of installing meters, but refused to comment for this story.

“What’s happened over the last four years,” Casavant said, “is that as more people have complained about parking situation and the council as a whole has seen those issues with their own eyes, they’ve become increasingly aware that something has to be done.”

According to Bennett, a strategy being looked at for funding the garage now would be to sell monthly permits to users of the city’s surface lots.

“I think primarily the idea is that the surface lots are going to be longer term, all-day kind of parking,” Bennett said, “and that all the street parking is really designed to be turnover parking enforceable by time limits. You don’t want workers that are in the businesses taking up all the on-street parking, you want those available to people that are coming into the community that are coming in for a quick in-and-out.”

The Nov. 15 vote took place after public comment and discussion amongst councilors. The public, and specifically Howard Hanson of Concerned Citizens of Biddeford, expressed concern that the garage could be a burden on taxpayers. Councilor Marc Lessard emphasized that the RFP vote itself was not a significant expense, because its cost was effectively the production of documents and required notice advertisements.

“It’s probably under a hundred bucks,” Bennet said at the meeting.

“So, at this point there is no impact on tax rates, with what we’re proposing this evening?” Lessard asked.

“That’s correct,” Bennett answered.

It was also emphasized by Ward 3 Councilor Stephen St. Cyr that, even ultimately, the plan was that the garage would not cost taxpayers money.

“The overall concept,” St. Cyr said, “is to borrow the money and for the principal and interest on those funds to be paid for by either user fees or TIF (tax increment financing) funds, so that it would have no direct bearing on the tax rate.”

“I don’t think there’s anybody on this council that would vote for a parking garage if it was going to raise taxes,” Casavant said. “It has to come from the revenue stream of the user.”

The funding of the garage would function through bonds, which were discussed at the Nov. 1 workshop. The city can use either revenue bonds, which may be paid only by revenue generated by the project, or general obligation bonds, which can be paid by any city revenue. According to Bennett, revenue bonds come with higher interest rates because they are higher risk. General obligation bonds must be voted on by residents by requirement of the city charter. Whether revenue bonds need to be voted on is a legal question, for which the city is seeking an opinion.

The Nov. 15 discussion also emphasized the potential benefits and importance of having a parking garage.

“I think that the community wants to hear an acknowledgement that the mil rate is high and that doing this is a path to getting it down,” said Matt Lauzon, a Ward 5 resident.

Lauzon also raised the concern of missed opportunities for business locations in the downtown. Bennett said two businesses considered and declined locating in Biddeford, one which may have brought more than 200 jobs and another that may have brought 450 jobs.

“Both of those companies had average employment levels, in terms of total compensation were in the $50 to $60,000 range,” Bennett said.

“These were not call centers,” Bennett added.

“If you go on the (3 Lincoln St.) site, for example,” Casavant said, “there’s a lot of cars there, a bunch of them are paying fees to us now for that, but they can’t stay there if they’re gonna develop the site. They have to go someplace, and obviously in the downtown there’s not many places they could go.”

The lot at 3 Lincoln St. is owned by the city and leased to tenants, according to Stevenson. The spaces are leased at $40 per space, and 80 of the spaces are currently leased to the Lofts at Saco Falls. Lofts at Saco Falls has an option to lease four more spaces, and the remaining 30 spaces are not leased—for December the city is allowing the film crew for the “Holly Star” production to use them.

Doug Sanford, owner of the lot adjacent to York Street, said that he’s excited about movement on a parking garage. About whether his lot is still in the running, Sanford said he doesn’t know what the city will do.

“We’d like to think that there’s still an open conversation,” Sanford said.

Contact Staff Writer Anthony Aloisio at news@inthecourier.com.

FMI

Documents from this year regarding a parking garage in downtown Biddeford are available at www.biddefordmaine.org; click "City Government," then "City Departments," "City Manager," and "Presentations." Documents from 2012, including concept renderings and plans from Winton Scott, are available by clicking "City Government," then "City Departments," "Economic

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