By J. PATRICK PEPPER
DEARBORN — A judge’s ruling earlier this month that Burton-Katzman Development Co. breached its contract with the city finally might bring some closure to a saga that has rankled business owners and city officials alike.
But don’t expect it to end paid parking.
Michele DaRos, economic and community development deputy director, who oversees the parking system, said last week that any restitution eventually awarded to the city likely would mean a “healthier system” financially, but wouldn’t necessarily eliminate the need for the system entirely.
Some paid parking critics have pointed to the incomplete West Village Commons Development – the subject of the lawsuit – as the reason for the system in west Dearborn. The general argument is that paid parking was not implemented until after the city built two parking decks to support the Burton-Katzman project.
Because the project never was finished, tax capture revenue that was supposed to pay for the decks and the amount of paying customers never reached the level it was supposed to, thus making paid parking a necessity. But as DaRos explained, that notion may be a bit confused.
“The parking system, even without the decks, is owned by the public, and it needs to be maintained and operated,” she said. “There’s a cost associated with that.”
DaRos said while the decks were built by the city as part of the agreement with the Bingham Farms developer, the paid-parking conversation arose from studies conducted almost a decade before.
In 1997, in response to the deplorable condition of west Dearborn’s public parking, a parking advisory commission was established to try to determine the most amicable route to improving the lots.
Another issue given much consideration during their meetings was how to keep the closest available spaces open for customers after the city had received complaints that employees would occupy them all day.
Paid parking was something that seemed to meet both goals; it would provide revenue to improve the lots and give employees incentive to park somewhere like Ford Field, where parking is free, DaRos said.
Meanwhile, eastside Michigan Avenue public parking, which also was considered at the time, was not seen as having the same problems. The lots rarely were at capacity and recently had been refurbished through federal grants – grants the west end district was not eligible for.
“It wasn’t just the revenue that was the problem,” DaRos said. “It was also the capacity issue.
“While that certainly hasn’t been the case with the recent economy, it is still one of the reasons why (paid parking) was considered to be a good idea.”
But the biggest roadblock to removing paid parking might not have anything to do with failed developments or parking control at all. It comes down to equity, DaRos said.
Before paid parking, maintenance was financed through special assessment levies. In that system, which still is used in the east end, lot usage was assessed on a business-by-business basis using a detailed formula. The more customers a business was calculated to have, the higher the levy.
The problem, DaRos said, stemmed from when businesses successfully appealed their assessments.
“If somebody contests their assessment, you can’t then spread it over the rest of the group. If they win their contest, then the public ends up making up the difference,” she said. “I don’t know that there is a tool that would assure that the public doesn’t end up subsidizing it.”
It still is uncertain what the city’s favorable court ruling will hold for the struggling district and the divisive parking system. City attorneys are seeking to have the court compel Burton-Katzman to either finish the project or return the land and pay $17 million for the cost of the decks, as well as fees and damages. A hearing is scheduled for Sept. 25 to discuss possible remedies.
If the judge does grant the city’s request in full, DaRos, a veteran of the parking debate, predicts that conversations on the necessity of paid parking will once again pick up. When asked to speculate on whether a solution could arise from the dialogue, she said what some have said along.
“It’s hard for me to see – and I don’t know if there is – a solution that will make everybody happy.”