Open more than a year, public spaces mostly vacant in parking garage

By MIKE WIGGINS
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Ask Chris Brown what she thinks about the multicolored brick parking garage on Rood Avenue, and the Grand Junction woman marvels.

She praises the aesthetics of the building and claims it’s meeting the need for more parking downtown.

“I think it’s great,” she said.

And yet, after plugging a meter on Fifth Street and before ducking into Brink’s Fine Jewelry across the street from the four-story structure, she acknowledges, “I’ve never parked in there.”

A little more than a year and a half after the city celebrated the opening of the 448-space parking garage with speeches, cake and other fanfare, the response from people looking for places to park has been subdued.

City employees, downtown businesses and other private parties have leased a majority of the spaces on the second, third and fourth floors, with occupancy from 60 to nearly 100 percent. But on any given day, fewer than one in 10 public spots on the first floor are occupied. City funds paid one-third of the $7.8 million cost to build the garage.

City officials acknowledge that fewer people are parking in the garage than they anticipated. But they say the garage was intended to serve an expanded population — including a yet-to-be-established housing element in downtown — years down the road. And they believe occupancy will grow as people become more familiar with a structure typically found in larger cities.

“Maybe it’s getting off to a slower start than people thought it would, but it was intended to serve the downtown area for years to come,” said Heidi Hoffman Ham, executive director of the Downtown Development Authority, which shared in the cost of the garage with the city and Alpine Bank.

The garage was billed as a place that would benefit both downtown employees and customers. And at least one of those groups appears to be taking advantage of it.

Norm Franke, regional president of Alpine Bank, said all 114 spaces the bank purchased were leased by employees within the first 30 days the garage was open.

“It’s been great,” he said. “It’s nice to go to a covered spot both in the summer and the winter.”

In addition to using the lot immediately west of the bank building, the bank previously leased parking near the First Assembly of God church, forcing employees to scamper across Grand Avenue to get to work. The garage is not only safer for workers, but it has freed up parking in the lot for bank customers, Franke said.

The garage frees up more on-street parking for downtown visitors who in the past could be stymied by employees who either took advantage of the free parking on Main Street or plugged meters downtown throughout the day.

But shoppers and diners and others doing business downtown have yet to discover the parking garage.

On a recent day shortly before lunchtime, there were just six cars and one motorcycle parked in the area open to the public. One of those cars belonged to Aly Kirby, a 24-year-old employee of Il Bistro Italiano.

“I park here every day because nobody parks in here,” Kirby said, adding she’s always able to park in a row next to the machine that requires 50 cents for an hour’s worth of parking. From there, she can walk down the alley to Fourth Street, turn the corner and walk into the restaurant.

Kirby, who used to fight for a spot in the lot south of the Rockslide Brew Pub, said she also prefers parking in the garage because it’s well-lit.

There have been so few people parking in the garage that skateboarders who frequent the place at night have had room to do tricks and zigzag throughout all four floors. City Financial Operations Manager Jodi Romero said there also have been a few instances of graffiti and vehicles being damaged. As a result, the city is considering installing security cameras.

“Certainly if anything’s happening during daytime hours, if there’s more people in and out (of the garage), that certainly discourages that type of behavior,” she said.

City officials have employed a number of tactics to try to encourage more people to use the garage. They cut the price of a monthly lease of an uncovered spot from $50 to $30. They attached red banners to a row of street lights outside the garage that read “public parking” and have an arrow pointing to the garage. They knocked down a former coin shop to create a breezeway that will offer a direct connection to Main Street.

They’ve even gotten some help from the owners of Snap Photo, which sits in the shadow of the garage on the southwest corner of Fifth and Main. For some time, the sign outside the business has read “Quick, look right — that’s a parking garage.”

Ham said it may be that people still don’t know or forget that Grand Junction has a parking garage. She said it’s up to the DDA to do a better job of marketing the garage.

“I’m surprised at the number of people who don’t realize it’s there,” Ham said. “They’re so used to parking where they normally park that they don’t think about the garage.”

Romero said habits tend to drive where people park, meaning that someone who has traditionally parked in a certain area will continue to park there until something happens to force a change.

“The bottom line is we haven’t run out of street parking, and it may be outside of people’s natural tendencies or comfort level to park in a parking garage,” she said.

City and DDA officials insist they’re not worried about occupancy and that, if it hasn’t already, the garage will prove to be a worthwhile investment of public and private dollars.

“I just think it’s a matter of time,” Ham said. “Five years from now, it won’t even be an issue in terms of occupancy because people will get used to it more and find how easy it is.”


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