COLUMBIA — About two years from now, a new eight-level parking garage could help fill the skyline of downtown Columbia. The City Council last week approved a plan to construct the garage on Walnut Street, between Fifth and Sixth streets, and across the street from the U.S. post office, at a cost of between $10 million and $15.5 million.
The garage would have about 600 parking spaces and up to 17,000 square feet of retail space in the lower level of the garage and put the city in the unusual position of being a landlord to businesses.
The approval of the garage has sparked discussion about other downtown issues, too. The eight-story garage paves the way for construction of taller multi-purpose buildings, and it adds a large number of parking spaces, even though the city is attempting to make downtown bike-friendly.
Mayor Darwin Hindman said having retail space in a garage will be a more efficient use of the land.
“The other garages create dead space in the downtown, and we want to avoid that,” he said.
Consultants have presented the council with studies showing that concentrating business and parking in the same area can benefit business districts by generating pedestrian traffic, Hindman said. The retail space is not primarily intended to generate money for the city but to encourage more people to spend time downtown.
The city, MU and Stephens College in 2006 hired Boston-based Sasaki Associates to assess ways to encourage development in central Columbia south of Broadway. Though the site of the new parking garage is outside the area that Sasaki studied, the plan is consistent with the firm’s recommendations of eliminating surface parking lots and building up in the central business district.
The city has hired Elgin, Ill.-based Walker Parking Consultants to design the new parking garage.
With a height of 80 to 90 feet, the parking garage will definitely stand out. For that reason, special care will be taken to make sure the garage is easy on the eyes, said Dave Ryan, director of operations for Walker.
“It’s going to be one of the bigger buildings in the downtown, and they want it to blend in,” Ryan said.
The company has proposed several options to the city, and the council chose an upper-end facade, meaning the designers will pay more attention to the aesthetics of the garage.
“It won’t just be a concrete slab,” Ryan said. A designer can help the garage blend in based on the bricks and other material used in construction.
The garage can also be a sign of things to come.
“We anticipate the downtown will get taller,” Hindman said. “You have to start with something.”
The Sasaki plan also recommended the city encourage taller buildings with mixed uses, such as buildings of at least three to five stories with retail space on the ground floors and apartments above.
Mary Wilkerson, chairwoman of the Special District Board of Directors, said the organization strongly endorses the garage plans.
“What we are excited about is that it is a multi-use building,” Wilkerson said. She said people are less likely to visit downtown if they think parking will be hard to find, regardless of whether their perception is accurate.
Wilkerson said she understands that some business owners might be unhappy that the city is becoming a competitor by offering retail space for rent. The overall goal, however, is to get people to spend time downtown, and she argued that additional parking would attract new customers, offsetting the competition.
The garage is necessary, city transportation manager Ken Koopmans said, because there are barely enough spots now and because expansion of the Boone County Courthouse and the Daniel Boone City Building will bring more people to the immediate area.
Koopmans said that when a city reaches the point that 80 percent of downtown parking spaces are taken, people end up having to spend too much time looking for a spot and, eventually, will become less likely to drive downtown. Columbia was approaching that 80-percent threshold in 2000, and the need for parking has grown since then.
“The dynamic (of downtown) is changing,” Koopmans said.
The land slated for the garage is currently a metered surface parking lot for the public and for police vehicles, and it is on property adjacent to McNally’s Pub, Municipal Credit Union and Commerce Bank. Earlier proposals offered the possibility of the city buying the credit union and bank or building the garage over them, but city staff recommended those options be rejected.
Instead, the ordinance calls for the staff to proceed with plans to build on the city-owned land. The council also approved building an underground lot in the garage for secure Columbia Police Department parking, at an additional cost of about $1.5 million.
There are 5,900 parking spaces in downtown Columbia, according to the Special Business District Web site, and that number will increase by almost 900 in the next few years. A garage with 290 parking spaces will be built by the city as part of the construction of a Hyatt hotel located on the Regency Hotel property.
The garage’s construction comes at the same time the city is encouraging residents to ride their bicycles downtown by creating bicycle lanes and installing bike racks. Hindman said that while the city is encouraging people to use their bicycles or walk downtown, the reality is that a large portion of the population always will want to drive. By giving people transportation choices, the city can encourage more people to spend time and money downtown.
Now that the garage has been approved, Walker Consultants will finish negotiating the details with the city and come back to the City Council with a design. Ryan said it will take 18 to 24 weeks to design the building once negotiations are done.
Public Works Department spokeswoman Jill Stedem said the city hopes to break ground on the project by this fall and complete it by the summer of 2010.