LACONIA — While the budget for fiscal year 2017 proposed by City Manager Scott Meyers contemplates borrowing $3 million to repair and improve the downtown parking garage, at least one city councilor would prefer to demolish it.
"If I had my druthers," Councilor David Bownes (Ward 2) said this week, "I'd just drop a bomb on it. I can't imagine a scenario by which we restore that place that bears long-term rewards."
The future of the garage has been clouded by its divided ownership. The city owns the ramps and north end of the second and third levels, including the northernmost stairwell, which includes 204 of its 240 parking spaces. The ground floor of the garage, except for the ramps, and the south end of the second and third levels, including the southernmost stairwell, along with seven commercial units on the ground level, are privately owned by Downtown Crossing LLC.
The parking garage is structurally entwined with the commercial units; the second deck serves as the roof of the units. While it would be possible to demolish the garage alone, it would likely be cost-prohibitive to restore the roofs and reinstall the utilities. Bownes acknowledged that the property would have to demolished in its entirety, which would require the city to acquire the privately owned portion at a cost of $1 million. Dubois & King Inc. has estimated the cost of razing the entire structure at $455,000.
Bownes said that the cost to repair, renovate and improve the facility is projected at $3 million, which would extend the life of the garage for 25 or 30 years.
"It would still be ugly and not performing a really useful function," he said, adding that "nobody uses the third floor and no one ever has. It's a nightmare," he continued, "and I don't want to create another nightmare for our successors down the road in 25 years."
Bownes is not alone. Attorney Matt Lahey likened investing $3 million in the parking garage to "spending $20,000 to repair a $500 car." Moreover, he noted that while Daniel DiSangro, the principal of Downtown Crossing LLC is seeking to sell his share of the property, he is apparently unwilling to fund the estimated $300,000 required to repair it or adjust his asking price, which is why Genesis Behavioral Health withdrew an offer to buy it. Lahey said that Genesis intended to invest $5.5 million in the project, but doubted that any other private investor would be forthcoming.
Likewise, Attorney Pat Wood, a member of the Downtown Tax Increment Financing Advisory Board, said that "The garage has outlived its useful life and should be demolished."
If the parking garage were demolished, 240 parking spaces downtown would be lost. Bownes and Woods both conceded that replacing the garage would be very costly. City Manager Myers has suggested that the cost of constructing a parking lot could run to as much as $30,000 for each space, which would put the cost of garage with 240 spaces at $7.2 million.
Wood said that a new garage could be built on the site of either the parking lot adjacent to City Hall or the parking lot between Main Street and Pleasant Street.
Neither Bownes nor Wood offered specific suggestions for funding construction of a new parking garage, but both said that fees for parking downtown could not be excluded from the discussion. Recalling that free parking was touted as a means of enlivening commerce downtown, Bownes openly doubted that it proved successful and acknowledged that parking fees could provide a revenue stream to service the debt incurred to build a garage as well as the cost of maintaining it.
"If the garage is the beginning and end of the discussion, then we haven't done our job," Bownes said.
"There are valid reasons for considering paid parking and it has be discussed," said Wood, who also suggested that tax increment financing could be applied to providing parking.
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