By MARK MARONEY
The Williamsport Parking Authority is trying to find the best and highest use of a space where the city plans to build a 246-space Trade and Transit Centre II on the site of the former Mid-Town parking garage at West Third and Laurel streets.
It remains a city-driven project, but, on Wednesday, the authority entertained ideas and a concept by Matthew Schauer and Charles Imbro, two downtown businessmen who said they would like to see an option of keeping it a flat or surface lot rather than building a deck.
“We benefit either way,” Imbro and Schauer told the authority. But, they said many of their customers and others heading downtown want to spend a few hours in the city and want to park on a surface lot.
“Do we spend taxpayer dollars on the ‘Taj Mahal’ garage or keep it simple and build moderate parking structures throughout the city?” asked Dr. Anthony J. Cipolla, authority chairman. His reference to the famous white marble mausoleum in India, left those in the meeting a bit upset, including William E. Nichols Jr., city finance director.
“Where are you going to put the 150 lost spaces and who is going to pay for it?” Nichols asked, shaking his head.
“It’s why we need to find the highest and best use of money spent on parking,” Cipolla said. “We have more restaurants, more businesses and stores and a greater need for daily parking.”
Monthly parking also is important but so is the transit component, he said.
“Our goal is to increase daily and monthly parking,” Cipolla said, suggesting that could be done by spreading out parking options throughout the central business district. “We can also find more spaces and spend less money.”
Mayor Gabriel J. Campana listened but was just as concerned about the potential legal exposure the city faces should it decide to change course and not build the ultra-modern new parking facility.
“What are the legal issues and how severe is it for taxpayers?” he asked city solicitor Norman Lubin.
“The grants are project-specific,” Lubin said. “If they are not used for this project, they must be returned. Uncle Sam will want his money back and there’s the question of any contracts you walk away from.”
Some $3 million has been expended to date for the acquisition of the site, demolition, site work, design and engineering services.
Any leftover federal funds are for construction of the expansion project only.
Council authorized River Valley Transit to borrow $5 million toward the construction costs and approved a resolution furthering the project.
About 167 monthly parkers temporarily were relocated from the Mid-Town deck, and 99 monthly spaces remain in the authority’s inventory.
The surface lot, Nichols said, would reduce project capacity by about 150 spaces.
It’s a project that was endorsed by the city and the authority as a future expansion site of the original Trade and Transit Centre completed in 2000.
Authority solicitor Scott Williams also said potential exposure to the city exists on the following three levels:
Reimbursement or potential reimbursement of federal dollars. Money came to the city because it was an expansion of the transit. If there is a change in the plans, the general rule is the city gives the money back.
Commitments to stakeholders.
Contractual issues. The city has invested in the engineering, demolition and foundation, or precast, work. If it breaks that midstream, those companies may be able to file a breach of contract and ask for damages and future claims.
Campana said if it is determined to be minimal exposure and costs, the city may consider putting additional parking on Destination 2014, a non-taxable site that could be turned into taxable properties and a government-private partnership development that has the support of the Gov. Tom Corbett.
The project is among one of his highest priorities as mayor. It involves the reuse and rebuilding of the YMCA building and block bordered by West Third, Hepburn, West Fourth and Elmira streets.
“If there is a legal and financial burden – all of this is moot,” said Marc Schefsky, an authority member.
Attorney Clifford Rieders, who had a stake in the redevelopment issues related to bringing in Kohl’s, said he believed the city has moral and ethical considerations as it fulfills commitments promised to Kohl’s, Wegmans and Highmark Blue Shield.
“We’ve made specific parking commitments that parking would be available in a certain radius to (these companies),” he said.
Rieders said all needs are important, from the merchants and retailers to the authority and city government, but one problem developers have today with governments is a “lack of consistency.” He also noted how people prefer garage parking in the winter.
Rieders said there’s also the fact that many employees using parking lots work downtown and go to the merchants’ businesses and restaurants during their breaks for lunch, dinner or free time.
Authority member Kenneth DiRocco said he was unaware of the topic as it related to the transit facility before the meeting and appreciated the businessmen and their investments downtown.
But DiRocco said the city has a time problem on its hands.
“Any delay in construction will result in increased costs every year and you still have to replace the lost parking spaces,” he said.
DiRocco said the centre, as envisioned, would be a showcase and would tie into other buildings in that part of the downtown.
He then made it clear how much the authority has accomplished over the past few years and its goals for the future.
“Over the last 12 years the authority and city have increased parking availability by 1,000 spaces,” he said. “The authority has committed $968,000 over the next three years in maintenance and upkeep of parking surface lots and its garages.”
Cipolla said the authority didn’t take action but could appreciate the merchants’ presentation and the willingness of the administration to listen and to consider what the best use of the space will be.
Campana, meanwhile, told the authority he will take all information into advisement.
Cipolla said options are available and the city of Malvern near Philadelphia is designing a portable lot that provided the area with 1,000 spaces for $4 million. The experimental project has been done in Europe and now is starting to take off in America, he said.
Campana said he wants to see a 10-year parking study and a traffic study for the eastern area of the central business district east of Market Street. He also plans to travel to Malvern to see the portable facility.