Parking garage talks continue in Oxford
● By Steven Hoffman
Oxford Borough expects to receive contractors' bids on the parking garage project by June 19, so soon officials will have a better idea of the actual costs for what would be the most significant infrastructure investment in the town's history. The costs of the project, and more specifically how much the borough would have to borrow in order to finance the project, will ultimately decide whether borough officials continue to make decisions that move the project forward. At the May 21 meeting, borough officials and residents continued to discuss the project, its costs, its drawbacks, and the potential economic impact on the commercial district.
While proponents of the parking garage project view it as a much-needed catalyst for economic development and as a long-term solution to the borough’s parking issues, critics have expressed concerns about the costs and whether the parking garage is needed.
The borough has already achieved an extraordinary amount of success in securing funding from state and county sources. Pauline Garcia-Allen, of Econ Partners, has helped facilitate the parking garage project for the borough, and she outlined how the borough has received $3.7 million from a variety of state and county agencies, and another $600,000 in grants for streetscape improvements related to the parking garage. The borough also has access to a $1.2 million gift fund that was established by an anonymous donor who gifted the funds for the borough to acquire or build a new borough administration building. The administration building is part of the parking garage project.
Garcia-Allen explained that the borough's revitalization efforts up to this point have played a critical role in convincing funders that the parking garage project is not just viable, but also very much needed in order for the borough to continue its progress. Garcia-Allen has described the process of obtaining grants as telling Oxford Borough's story to officials at the state and county level. Telling Oxford’s story gives those officials a better understanding of how the parking garage, as an infrastructure investment, could help the borough's downtown to reach its potential.
“It's what this community needs,” Garcia-Allen said.
State Rep. John Lawrence was invited by council president Sue Lombardi to attend the meeting as a scheduled guest. Lawrence thanked borough council for inviting him to talk about the project―he's been closely involved in numerous meetings and a variety of different activities related to the project over the course of the last four years.
Lawrence noted that while the most recent effort to address parking in the borough has been an issue for the last four years, ever since borough council authorized a parking study, the conversation about parking actually dates back to the 1970s―and maybe even earlier than that. He referenced a letter from the local chamber of commerce commenting about the need for more parking nearly 50 years ago.
Lawrence said that, as a state lawmaker, he is always concerned about government―at any level―taking on debt, but in this particular case the borough has secured so much grant funding that it puts the project within the borough's reach. More than half of the project will be funded through grants, he noted, which is extremely rare. Lawrence added that the borough was able to obtain about $2 million in funding from PennDOT, and typically those funds would have gone for a project in Philadelphia or maybe Pittsburgh―the grant process for these funds is that competitive. He explained that officials at the state, county, and municipal level, have seen the viability of the parking garage project in Oxford Borough, and he encouraged borough council to take that into consideration the rare opportunity to leverage so much state and county funding to upgrade the borough’s infrastructure.
“We've been able to attract significant funding,” Lawrence said. “Folks at the state, county, and municipal level have seen value in this proposal, which I think speaks very well to the opportunity. In the view of the people who do this for a living, this project is a lay up.”
Lawrence emphasized, however, that it's not his decision about how the borough addresses the parking issue.
“This is not my decision. This is not my project. It's my job to work on your behalf,” Lawrence told council. “My job is to facilitate. It's not up to me to come in here and tell you what to do in Oxford.”
Lawrence credited Garcia-Allen for her work in helping the borough secure more than $4 million in grants.
“She has done a tremendous job,” he said.
Despite the borough's success in obtaining grants, a small, but vocal group of residents have steadfastly opposed the project because of the possibility that the project could result in higher taxes on borough residents. During public comment, several of the residents reiterated those concerns, saying that the costs of the project could increase beyond what has been estimated, and the borough’s taxes are already too high.
Lombardi noted that it has been the borough council's intent all along to not have residents pay for the project. Borough officials maintain that revenues generated by the metered lots, the metered parking spaces in the downtown, and the parking garage itself will be sufficient to cover the debt-service payments―so the costs for the parking garage will be paid by those people who are parking in the borough’s metered spaces, not residents.
Next, Lombardi prefaced a presentation by council member Robert Ketcham by noting that it was not a borough council presentation, and Ketcham had not been asked by council to conduct a study of parking patterns in the downtown. The message was that the council, as a whole, did not endorse or substantiate the information in the presentation.
Regardless, Ketcham explained how he spent two months between March and May leading the effort to monitor the usage of parking spaces in the BB&T lot and the two smaller parking lots near Broad Street to get a sense of the demand for parking in the commercial district. Ketcham noted that, as of March 1, the spaces in those parking lots were metered, and people now have to pay to park there.
Ketcham created graphs illustrating how many vehicles were parked in the lots at different times of the day each Monday through Saturday.
“I think there are some patterns starting to emerge,” Ketcham said. He explained that most weekdays had fairly consistent usage. The number of vacancies in those parking lots was also fairly consistent during evening hours―except for Friday nights, which stood out as being busier in terms of usage, Ketcham said.
The council member explained that there are 100 spaces in the BB&T lot, and another 72 spaces in the two parking lots near Broad Street. Combining all the available data that was collected, Ketcham said, there were 42.5 vacancies in the BB&T lot and 57 vacancies, on average, in the two smaller lots. Add those two numbers together and there were 99.5 vacancies, on average, out of a total of 172 spaces.
Next, Ketcham talked about the plans for the size of the parking garage. He explained that one option, the larger one, would have a total of 345 spaces―310 lots inside the garage and another 35 surface spaces, while the smaller option would have 301 total spaces―266 inside and another 35 surface spaces. The smaller one would come with a smaller price tag. The borough is accepting bids on both sizes.
Ketcham said that his survey of parking patterns in the metered lots indicated that the borough could expect 58 vehicles that are currently being parked in the lots to be parked in the parking garage. With the borough hall being a part of the garage project, those employees and visitors will also use the parking garage.
Ketcham concluded his presentation by highlighting some of the under-utilized buildings in town where expansion could take place. He noted that the recently closed Rite Aid could be a prime spot for redevelopment. A bed & breakfast is being planned for a building on Locust Street, and the Soap Bucket Skincare and Candles is considering a possible expansion of its operations. The Oxford Area Sewer Authority building could be sold and redeveloped. The Oxford Hotel was recently sold and could be used in a different capacity in the future.
“People in the borough now have plans to grow, expand, and start new businesses,” Ketcham said.
While the data that Ketcham collected suggests that there are enough vacancies in the metered parking lots to raise concerns that a parking garage might not be fully utilized, the buildings in the downtown that could be successfully redeveloped suggests that there is the potential for significant commercial growth. Once the borough receives bids on the project, and borough council has a better understanding of the actual costs of the project, a decision about the size of the parking garage will need to be made.
Borough manager Brian Hoover reiterated his belief that a project of the size and scope of a parking garage must be viewed as a long-term investment―as an important piece of infrastructure, it could pay dividends for borough residents for decades.
“If we are to attact the businesses―the restaurants, or an employer that would employ 50 people in the downtown―we need to understand that right now we don't have the parking to do that,” Hoover said. “That's what this parking garage is about.”