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Notta lotta parking lots in LR? River market area well served, but central downtown getting tight.

PARKING SPACE IS LIKE money: You can't have enough of it.

That is essentially what downtown Little Rock businesses told The Downtown Partnership in a survey done earlier this year.

Of the 129 surveyed, 85 percent said the parking situation downtown was at least "acceptable" and even "very good." But when asked what downtown needs to improve the quality of life, the two most common answers were better nighttime security and, yes, parking.

Downtown Partnership President Sharon Priest said "the perception is not the reality."

Priest believes downtown's 1,600 street parking spaces and an estimated 15,000-16,000 other public and private parking spaces are enough.

"If you're willing to walk a block, you won't have a hard time finding; parking," Priest said. "People want to be able to park right where they're going."

And for some places downtown, even that demand will be met.

The city-owned parking deck that opened in August next to the First Security Center in the River Market will satisfy the needs of that area for at least a few years, according to Jeff Duncan, who is president of the city's largest parking management company, Best Park.

But Duncan and others also say the center of downtown, which is the most concentrated and perhaps the fastest-growing part of downtown, is the most saturated with cars.

Unfortunately for motorists, it is also the part of downtown that poses the most challenges for adding parking, namely because of availability and cost.

Downtown Dilemma

Duncan began his career in parking in 1970 as a valet lot attendant in Little Rock. After moving up the ranks of National Garages Inc. to assistant manager, he joined Allright Parking as city manager and is now the renamed outfit's president.

Duncan and his partner, David Bogard, who was with Allright since 198,0, bought the Central Parking subsidiary last year and became the city's largest parking managers with more than 50 locations.

Best Park has snuggled into parking lots, decks and garages beside or beneath all of Little Rock's major commercial hubs: the Metropolitan National Bank Tower, the Regions Building, the Bank of America Building, One Union Plaza and others.

According to Duncan, the locations in central downtown are starting to run short on space.

"Metropolitan is at capacity, Regions is pretty much at capacity," Duncan said.

Best Park will continue to take advantage of good locations if they become available, Duncan said, but customer service, not growth, is at the heart of the company's business.

"Like any other business, if you can get a good location, you can make some money," Duncan said.

Some of the best locations in the most needed areas could already be taken by the very buildings that make them necessary.

Eric Cable of Ampco System Parking said, "There's a shortage in the heart of downtown."

He cited shortages around the Stephens Building and the USAble Building. Adding spaces would be tough, he said.

As Cable sees it, property's not cheap. Neither is building a new deck--Arkansas Blue Cross and Blue Shield's new deck cost $5.2 million. Tearing down a building in central downtown to put up a parking deck is not cost efficient. And buying central downtown property for use as a surface lot instead of a deck just isn't worth the price.

Maintenance is another matter. Striping and numbering, which is necessary about every 18 months for most lots and even more frequently for concrete lots, costs more than $5 a space, Duncan said.

Cable is quick to point out that the costs of additional locations downtown would eventually become worth it, and parking spaces would catch up with growth.

He said, "If demand gets high enough, you're going to see more" parking locations in central downtown.

Other Options

Some businesses have taken it upon themselves to make sure their employees have parking. Arkansas Blue Cross and Blue Shield did just that in December when it opened its own parking deck on the corner of Sixth and Gaines streets.

Before the 585-space deck was built, ABCBS employees were scattered all around central downtown.

"We needed additional spaces and also thought it would provide increased security," ABCBS spokeswoman Max Heuer said.

Indeed, the deck has a skywalk that leads directly to the building. Only company employees can park there and the deck is monitored.

Employees pay $20 a month for space--a similar deck space in central downtown Would cost at least $50 and perhaps even more than $70 a month-and Heuer said the parking benefit serves as a good recruitment and retention tool.

(According to The Downtown Partnership's survey, more than one-third of downtown's workers are reimbursed by their employer, and less than one-third said they fend for themselves to find on-street parking.)

Outside central downtown, the options are more plentiful and the prices cheaper. Last year the city built the River Market Parking deck next to the First Security Center. It's one of three downtown parking locations managed by the Little Rock Convention & Visitors Bureau whose rates and locations are geared toward tourists.

The River Rail, which wraps around seven blocks in and around the River Market, allows tourists to park on one side of town and ride to the other. It has also made Little Rock parking a viable option for those attending events at Alltel Arena in downtown North Little Rock.

Still, one of the biggest beneficiaries of parking is the city. While parking lot owners are not eager to share revenue figures, the city is legally required to be candid: Last year the city brought in $399,239 in parking meter revenue from 2,770 parking spaces and $339,457 in parking tickets. And the three decks owned by the city and managed by the Convention & Visitors Bureau brought in more than $1 million.
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Title Annotation:Commercial Real Estate
Comment:Notta lotta parking lots in LR? River market area well served, but central downtown getting tight.(Commercial Real Estate)
Author:Taulbee, Chip
Publication:Arkansas Business
Geographic Code:1U7AR
Date:Mar 14, 2005
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