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Council Greenlights Bus Yard Expansion, Blocks Public Use of Parking

By Gene Williams
Staff Writer

April 15 -- The expansion of the Big Blue Bus facility avoided a detour Tuesday night, when the City Council denied an appeal from a resident who argued that the planned project violates City code, will attract homeless and doesn’t provide for public parking.

The 5 to 1 vote effectively greenlights the building of a three story, 75,885-square-foot administration building with three levels of subterranean parking and a 62,803-square-foot vehicle maintenance facility near Downtown.

The plan also calls for replacing the Ocean Park Community Center’s homeless facility at the north end of the bus yard with a new 10,000-square-foot drop in center with showers and lockers near Samoshel on the south side of the yard.

The council, however, turned down a Planning Commission recommendation to allow public use of some of the 353 parking spaces in the subterranean garage after hours, but not after some council members worried that potential parking spaces would sit empty.

“I really wish that the parking could be better utilized,” said Council member Bob Holbrook, who voted for the plan. “It’s really a shame to have spaces empty that could have been used by somebody, at least until midnight.”

The vote came after appellant Craig Jones -- a developer and a neighbor of the bus facility -- argued that the proposed project would discourage foot traffic and encourage the homeless to camp out.

“We are absolutely supporters of this project,” said Jones, who is Downtown’s largest residential developer. “We want to see this project go forward.

“But we desperately want to see that the ground floor corner of Seventh and Colorado is activated,” he said. “It’s absolutely critical to make sure that this corner doesn’t become a greater housing of the homeless.”

Citing a City code that dictates a public entrance per every 100 feet of commercial frontage, Jones threatened to take the issue to court.

“I am prepared to take this to the legal realm if this body doesn’t acknowledge it,” Jones said.

But the most often repeated objection to the $80 million project was the transit authority’s refusal to share part of its 353-space subterranean garage with the public to ease the parking woes of local residents and merchants.

“It’s very simple. It’s a zero-cost solution to make that parking available to the public,” Jones said.

He was joined by a restaurateur and a planning commissioner who echoed his call for parking.

“It seems to me that we’re building a large parking lot with public money in a city where parking is difficult for everybody,” said Robert Kerr, who owns an eatery at 6th Street and Colorado Avenue where, he says, parking hassles are hurting his business.

“Why not open it up to the public?” asked Kerr. “Why not funnel some of the city traffic into this parking structure which is….not being used at night, sitting there empty (and) get some of the cars off the street?”

Planning Commissioner Jay Johnson noted that the idea of limited public parking in the garage has the “unanimous support of the Planning Commission.”

Indeed, the commission made night-time permit parking for local residents and merchants on one of the garage’s three levels a condition for approval of the project -- a condition which City staff recommended eliminating when it brought the matter before the council on Tuesday.

“We felt this was a reasonable and needed improvement,” Johnson said, “especially when there is a minimal inconvenience and expense associated with the condition.”

But Director of Transit Services Stephanie Negriff said it wasn’t that easy, citing issues of funding and security that are unique to the Big Blue Bus facility.

About 65 percent of the construction money will come from the State’s Transit Development Act and Transit Assistance Funds which cannot be used for public parking, said Negriff.

The other 35 percent of the money comes from Propositions A and C which have similar strings attached, she later added.

In addition, a security assessment by the Federal Transit Authority (FTA) confirmed “a number of security and vulnerability areas” in the bus yard that precludes opening the parking area to the public, Negriff said.

Also, making parking available to the public would not be cheap, the transit chief argued.

“Any requirement that would allow public access to the underground parking after hours would certainly impose a significant design-change cost to the project, as well as operating costs changes that would not be related to the provisions of transit,” she said.

Many of Negriff’s assertions were backed by a lengthy report from City staff.

Commissioner Johnson called the report “hyperbole, distortion and exaggeration.”

Appellant Jones wouldn’t buy any of it either, offering to solve the parking dilemma himself.

“I hate to be smart-aleck about it, but do you know what? I can figure it out for them,” said Jones, referring to City staff and the developers of the facility.

“If they need help figuring it out, I can do the figuring out,” he added. “I have done enough developments where we have done this.”

But Mayor Pam O’Connor agreed with Negriff.

“Public transit is a unique benefit that must be secure,” the mayor said. “Our goal here is not about activating the street; the goal is to say, ‘We need a place that is safe and secure,’” she said, noting that fuels and other sensitive materials will be stored on the site.

City officials said they had not analyzed the legal issues raised by using State transit funds for parking.

“We haven’t been asked to, and we haven’t done an analysis of whether running a public parking lot is a transit purpose or not,” said City Attorney Marsha Moutrie, responding to a question from Council member Bobby Shriver.

“I’m almost prepared to say it’s not, but we haven’t done the analysis,” Moutrie said.

In the end, all of the council members except Shriver voted to deny Jones’ appeal and uphold the Planning Commission’s approval of the project with the elimination of its condition for public parking. (Council member Herb Katz recused himself due to a conflict of interest.)

However, the council also directed staff to look into the issue further and return with several options for providing public parking at the facility.

After the meeting Jones introduced himself to Negriff. As they shook hands he said, “I’m going to sue you to stop this project.”

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