As parking garage usage plummets during the pandemic, what should happen next to those hulking, largely empty, publicly-owned concrete behemoths that tower over downtown?
That question came up again and again during the most recent monthly meeting of Park New Haven, the quasi-public municipal parking authority that operates the Crown Street Garage, Temple Street Garage, Temple Medical Garage, Air Rights Garage, and Union Station Garage.
A call for innovative thinking came amidst a dire fiscal backdrop for a municipal agency whose business model has been upended by a precipitous drop in downtown work and leisure commuters due to Covid-19.
“We can’t anticipate that this business is going to come back the way it was” before the pandemic, parking commissioner Larry Stewart (pictured) said during the online meeting, held the week of Christmas. “We’re going to have to look at alternative means and uses for those structures. We’re going to have to think way outside the box for this.”
Two Yale undergraduates pitched the commissioners during the meeting on one such potential reuse: converting part of Crown Street Garage — perhaps the roof or the exterior or a currently empty section inside the structure — into a community green space, like a garden or venue for Covid-safe recreational activities.
“Garages are not only monuments to urban development that significantly impact streetscape and urban form,” argued Yale sophomore Rakel Tanibajeva alongside fellow Yalie Madeleine Zaritsky, “but are also large barren spaces that would greatly benefit from green installations that would remove pollutants from the air, sequester carbon, raise property values, and generally make the area more natural and pleasant to be in.”
Pandemic Precipitates Parking Garage Blues
Before the two Yalies took the virtual stage to make their “Greening the City” pitch, Park New Haven Chief Operating Officer Sammy Parry and Chief Financial Officer Brian Seholm detailed the agency’s current financial hurt. They presented graphs and charts showing a steep decline in parking garage tickets issued, and revenue collected, since the onset of the pandemic in March. The garages saw a brief upward trend in usage over the summer, followed by another sharp fall in November.
Parry said that the “shining star” of the group is the Air Rights Garage, which saw an average daily usage of around 1,600 parking spaces filled in November. That’s nowhere near the daily average usage of roughly 2,000 spaces at this time last year, he said. But—thanks to the garage’s proximity to and partnership with Yale New Haven Hospital—plenty of people still come to park every day.
That’s not true at all for what is usually a flagship of the operation.
“Union Station is dead,” he said. At least insofar as daily parkers. The November average daily parking count was around 108. That’s just a tenth of the roughly 1,000 parked cars that garage saw on a typical day in November 2019.
Crown Street Garage saw a year-over-year average daily drop from around 650 to 232. Temple Street Garage saw a drop in that same time from around 900 to 224.
Seholm said that Air Rights Garage has brought in nearly $1.75 million out of the organization’s total net income for the year of $2.1 million.
“It’s an awe-inspiring impact” from just one garage on the total organization’s bottom line, he said.
“What’s really hitting us hard is Union Station,” Seholm continued. He said the garage is just under $850,000 in year-to-date losses. “What this means is that it is consuming cash. Union Station is a significant drain on the income of the organization as a whole.”
Seholm said that the parking authority will almost certainly need to provide notice to the city that it will not be able to provide a Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILOT) this year beyond the $1.5 million PILOT from Air Rights Garage.
“The big challenge with revenue from parking is that they’re user fees,” said city transit chief and parking authority Executive Director Doug Hausladen. “They’re ‘use-em-or-lose-em’ fees. You can’t go backwards and make people park in the past.”
Parry said that Metro North is currently projecting that it won’t return to 75 percent of pre-pandemic ridership for “a couple years” at least.
Hausladen (pictured) noted that there have been significantly fewer meetings after work, and people crossing county lines by train or car, during the pandemic. Parking commissioner Donna Curran, who owns the restaurant Zinc, said that New Haven’s dining scene has been hit particularly hard by the mass economic slowdown of the pandemic.
“There are no other activities” right now, she said. People usually come out to dinner when they’re also going to a play at the Shubert Theatre or Long Wharf Theatre or the Yale Rep, or a concert at College Street Music Hall. All of those venues are currently shut.
She also noted that the vast income disparity between Fairfield County and New Haven has meant that restaurants in the tonier suburbs are faring much better than ones in the Elm City. “If you come to New Haven, there’s a lot of homelessness on the street. It’s front and center. Frankly, they park and that’s all they see. I get out of my car and I’m panhandled three or four times before I get to the door.”
All of these short-term impacts point towards a necessary long-term shift in how the parking authority thinks about its business, Stewart said.
“We can get ahead of the game on this. We have to. We have these big structures we have to do something with.”
That’s when Hausladen invited Tanibajeva and Zaritsky to weigh in.
The two Yale undergraduates developed a “Greening the City” website as part of their urban studies class with Yale School of Architecture Associate Professor Elihu Rubin.
Hausladen had met up with the students a few days prior to the meeting to talk about their ideas for repurposing local garages. He was impressed enough with the pitch to bring it to the commission—not for any formal vote, just to hear them out and bounce around ideas.
Tanibajeva said that the website she and her fellow classmates developed provide “concrete methods for possible environmental implementation that will positively impact human health, general aesthetics, and economic value in New Haven, a city we care about and spend most of our time in throughout our academic careers.”
Zaritsky walked the commissioners through three specific proposals for the Crown Street Garage. All of these ideas are described in fuller detail on the group’s website, which is available here.
Those three ideas include:
• Proposal 1: Green Roof. This project would have the top floor of the Crown Street Garage transformed into a community space, such as a rooftop garden. The current upper floor is underutilized in its present form, with plenty of available parking spaces below. “A green roof can significantly benefit the environment by providing a rainwater buffer, in which rainwater is stored in the soil, taken up by plants, and returned to the atmosphere through transpiration and evaporation. Green roofs can also purify the air, regulate the indoor temperature of the building they reside on, reduce the ambient temperature, and improve biodiversity in the city,” the website proposal reads.
• Proposal 2: Green Wall. This project would convert some of the garage’s exterior walls into “vertical gardens”—complete with stone, soil, water, and a built-in irrigation system. “This proposal has the added advantage of not taking up area in the garage, possibly easing the process of implementation if the property owner is hesitant to transform a part of the garage that could be used for parking,” the website proposal reads.
• Proposal 3: Green Space. This project proposes converting the currently empty, circular space at the base of the garage’s interior ramp into a small park. “By transforming the lot into the small park pictured, the area would be opened up to the community for general recreation and COVID-friendly activities such as outdoor movie screenings and/or dining,” the site reads.
The two Yale students said that each project could be applied to any one of the city’s downtown parking garages, not just the one on Crown Street.
“I think this is a wonderful proposal,” said Curran. She encouraged the students to reach out to the Urban Resources Initiative (URI) at Yale’s School of Forestry to see if they could collaborate.
Where will the funding come from to make such ideas a reality? asked Stewart.
Hausladen said that these projects wouldn’t necessarily have to be paid for by parking revenue. “There are other pots of funding once you get out of the parking world,” he said. “There could be opportunities for other grant dollars” or partnerships.
Stewart said these projects represent exactly the type of out-of-the-box thinking the parking authority needs to be engaging in right now.
Hausladen agreed. “The Highline was once just a rail line until it was the Highline Park,” he said.
1644, I’m all for developing parking lots. But the Coliseum lot is small beer compared to the drop in demand for NHPA spaces. That lot has about 400 spaces. The drop in demand at the Union Station garage, by itself, is more than twice this amount. Parking demand will rebound when the pandemic abates. But the norm of everyone driving to work five days per week has disappeared, probably forever.
Jane, as you know the garage was predicated, in part, on the development of nearby NHPA lots that currently serve hospital workers. (I’ve had productive conversations about the garage with a Jane from Dwight; I’m assuming that’s you.) The pandemic has upended many things, including the timeline for the neuroscience center. Even when the pandemic abates, the growth of tele-health will reduce parking demand associated with the center. As you suggest, the hospital should reconsider the size of the garage.
Greening the NHPA garages would have multiple benefits. But it would not help pay their debt service. One question for Doug is whether the city is contingently liable for the authority’s debt. Bondholders like this sort of belts and suspenders arrangement for revenue bonds. I don’t know whether this is the case for the NHPA; one nice thing about retirement is that I will never again have to read a bond authorization.