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Birmingham weighs permanent valet downtown

By: Tiffany Esshaki | Birmingham - Bloomfield Eagle | Published January 7, 2019

 Keeping the downtown valet posts as a permanent service in Birmingham has been up for debate by the city’s Advisory Parking Committee.

Keeping the downtown valet posts as a permanent service in Birmingham has been up for debate by the city’s Advisory Parking Committee.

Photo by Tiffany Esshaki


BIRMINGHAM — There were plenty of silver linings to be found when downtown Birmingham was closed for reconstruction over the summer at Maple Road and Old Woodward Avenue.

But among the retail and dining promotions, art exhibitions and kids activities, one perk was a standout: that free valet parking.

Since 2014, valet parking has been a signature of downtown Birmingham’s retail district during the holiday shopping season. When the city embarked on 125 days of roadwork last summer — which included new water and sewer lines, new roads, lighting, irrigation and landscaping — the city teamed up with the Birmingham Shopping District to provide valet parking at two stations downtown, making the construction mess a bit easier to navigate for customers.

“We had valet services during the Old Woodward reconstruction project to (supplement) not having 130 parking meters available,” said Assistant City Manager Tiffany Gunter. “It was free at that time, and it was wildly popular. We parked about 3,000 cars a month and got a lot of great feedback from the merchants.”

So why not keep a good thing going?

That’s what Gunter said the Advisory Parking Committee essentially decided to do during its meeting the morning of Jan. 2, when committee members unanimously voted to direct Gunter’s office to release a request for proposals seeking bids for a valet service contract downtown.

Following the success of the summer’s valet program, the city entered into a six-month demonstration period to see if valet — not free, this time — would be successful as a permanent downtown service. That period still has some time before it wraps up, and already it looks like the offering could be here to stay.

“Right now, the first two hours is $5,” Gunter explained. “We’ve been parking an average of 700 cars per month, so we’re optimistic.”

That optimism is threefold: the prospect of saving a little money on street parking options, improving safety on the street and creating a unique draw exclusive to Birmingham.

“The Advisory Parking Committee finds this to be great for perception of the city. We’re not aware of any other municipality in the area providing this,” Gunter said.

Gunter said the cost for the service is approximately $36,000 — at least that’s been the cost for the half-year demonstration period, performed by In House Valet. That could change if a lower bid is submitted for a contract of at least one year of service, with an option to renew for three years.

At around $5 per car, the service isn’t self-sustaining. Gunter said a luxury valet offering would normally cost around $10-$15 per vehicle. Raising the fee per vehicle could potentially deter visitors from utilizing the service. So the city would have to kick in around $26,000 from the parking enterprise fund to continue the valet option. The final $10,000 would come from the Birmingham Shopping District.

“We’ve seen how the downtown valet program has helped our merchant community and their customers by providing another parking option in the heart of the city,” BSD Executive Director Ingrid Tighe said in an email.

So how is that a cost savings? Gunter said that adding just one metered parking space on the street downtown would cost the city $26,000. Multiplied by several vehicles, the valet is actually a more attractive option from a fiscal and even a marketing perspective.

Not to mention, giving downtown visitors an easy parking option that doesn’t corral them into a parking structure would cut down on what Gunter called the “predatory parking shuffle.”

“There are a lot of demands on our parking system, and this is a more efficient use of our dollars. We can manage vehicles more effectively, make visitors happy, and it increases safety by cutting down on people driving around hawking for spaces,” she said. “We’ve found that’s disruptive to the flow of traffic.”

The request for proposals is currently live, and bids can be submitted to Birmingham through Jan. 21. Upon completion of the valet evaluation period, the Advisory Parking Committee will make a recommendation to the City Commission for a final decision on the permanency of the valet program.