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 If approved, a parking structure project that will be proposed on the Aug. 6 ballot  will include an extension of Bates Street.

If approved, a parking structure project that will be proposed on the Aug. 6 ballot will include an extension of Bates Street.

File photo by Tiffany Esshaki

Birmingham to vote on $57.4 million parking structure bond

By: Tiffany Esshaki | Birmingham - Bloomfield Eagle | Published July 23, 2019


BIRMINGHAM — To repair or replace? That is the question.

At least that’s what Birmingham residents will be asked Aug. 6 when they vote on a $57.4 million bond that would fund the replacement of the North Old Woodward parking structure, a project that would create an extension of Bates Street out to Woodward Avenue and open the door to further development.

In May, the Birmingham City Commission voted to put the proposal, dubbed Birmingham N.O.W., on the ballot. If passed, the funds would be used to demolish the current parking facility at 333 N. Old Woodward Ave. — which is safe and operational, but has structurally surpassed its life expectancy, according to the city — and replace it with an updated construction with more than 400 additional parking spaces. The project was a recommendation of the Ad Hoc Parking Development Committee in 2017 after a parking demand study.

But what the city is asking for isn’t tax dollars, but rather permission to move forward with the project, with plans to finance $50.1 million of the bond with parking fees collected from the structure over time. The rest would be taken from the cash reserves in the Parking Enterprise Fund. Currently, the structure rates bring in a maximum of $10 per vehicle, with different rates for monthly pass holders.

Put the gear in drive
If approved, the commission said the structure could be the first step in potentially creating a multi-million-dollar public/private partnership at the location, with opportunities for public park land, high-end retail and other mixed-use space.

That includes the retail store formerly known as Restoration Hardware, now RH, which in the spring expressed to the city interest in building a five-story “gallery” store at the site if developed. Similar galleries have been built around the country, including in Napa Valley and New York City, and it is planned to have a rooftop café, among other amenities.

And of course, with the approval would come additional places that drivers can leave their vehicles when they come to downtown Birmingham.

If voters vote down the bond, the project would be scrapped — all of it. That means the RH store and any other mixed-use development can’t go on without public approval of the city-owned parking structure at the core.

To try and prevent that particular outcome, former Birmingham City Commissioner George Dilgard plans to cast his ballot in favor of Birmingham N.O.W.

“The existing structure, I think, was poorly designed and needs a lot of work now and going forward,” he explained. “It’s the classic spending good money after bad, and it doesn’t work in this case.”

Aside from the fact that there is currently no Plan B for replacing the existing North Old Woodward structure, and the RH deal is contingent on the approval of the development, Dilgard said he believes those sitting on the Planning Board and City Commission did their due diligence in developing a comprehensive plan for the land so it coincides with the downtown master plan. He said the project also creates more parking, as intended, but maximizes the site to include public park space and an opportunity for the city to bring in additional revenue via retailers.

“The agreement the city has already signed with the development team (to secure a guaranteed maximum price) has saved $3 million in costs than if we were to rebid that contract for concrete today,” Dilgard said. “If we delay this another 10-15 years, it will cost even more. And we need the parking now. Parking is already a serious problem.”  

Pump the brakes
But ask another former commissioner, Gordon Rinschler, about Birmingham N.O.W., and you won’t find as much support. He said he has some “heartburn” issues with the part of the plan that results in the city leasing the site for development. He thinks cash up front from a land sale would have been a better move.

“Leasing financially disadvantages seniors and current residents by spreading payments over 99 years. I’ll be on the wrong side of the grass before this pays back,” Rinschler said in a letter to the Eagle. “Worse yet, a sale would have provided an infusion of cash to fund park improvements, senior services, road repairs, etc.”

And since the city will still own the property, Rinschler said it won’t be subject to the same ordinance requirements and Planning Board scrutiny as a private property.

City Manager Joe Valentine disputes that, though. He said a community impact study for the  project will be as rigorous as a review for a private investment, with city staff, the Planning Board and consultants analyzing soil condition, traffic, noise, existing infrastructure and utilities, health and safety, site access and logistics for construction, and more.

There is a difference, however, in how changes are approved for public developments versus private.

“The site plan review process is the same. However, private developments are bound by the decisions of the Planning Board, whereas public projects are not,” Valentine explained in an email. “Given the Planning Board does not have the authority to expend city funds, any modifications that would result in changes to the project cost have to be approved by the City Commission.”

In other words, the developers on the private end of the project won’t have free rein to make site modifications without checking in with the city, Valentine said.

Rinschler added that he’s not keen on the fact that a lease for the site would be a benefit for the developer, as there’s no cash that needs to be paid up front. But he doesn’t see much of a benefit for taxpayers.

“Leasing is simply a bad deal,” he wrote. “I’ll be voting no.”

More information on the Birmingham N.O.W. project and bond can be found on a dedicated page on the city website,