Not Just For Parking Anymore

Some public garages are ramping up their looks and services.

Residents of Toledo, Ohio, have recently been treated to some unusual marketing from their city government. Through letters, handout cards and newspaper advertising, the city has embarked on an aggressive public information campaign. But the promotion isn't for its minor league baseball team, art museum or zoo. Rather, the city is tooting its own horn about a seemingly less glamorous feature: parking garages.

What's even stranger than a marketing campaign about parking is the fact that the city actually has something to say. Toledo's city garages offer jump-starts, a package-carrying service and window washing, all for free. For a charge, drivers can get more extensive service work done. If they need an oil change, new tires or a hand washing, a downtown contractor will perform the work while the driver works or shops. And when drivers leave the garage, they get free candy.

Although Toledo stands out in the level of service the city provides, cities all over the country are trying to spiff up their parking facilities. Long viewed simply as a revenue generator or a public utility, parking is increasingly seen as an economic development tool, capable of generating both dollars and goodwill for the city.

"Local governments are starting to understand the importance of parking," says David Feehan, president of the International Downtown Association. "Cities are working to change parking not just from a negative to a neutral but even to a positive experience."

In an effort to make the aesthetics of its parking garages more appealing to passersby, the city of Houston is encouraging sophisticated architecture and the co-location of retail or other attractions. "When you're in the downtown-revitalization business, it is so critical to make the pedestrian experience feel right," says Bob Eury, executive director of the Houston Downtown Management District. "It's very hard to do that with a lot of blank walls."

The city doesn't actually own much parking in its central business corridor, but the downtown management district has been fairly successful in persuading private developers to do innovative projects with their garages. Some garages already sport retail stores on one level. One downtown building was recently converted from an old department store to a parking garage. City officials persuaded the developer to keep the ground-level windows intact, to keep the option open for retail stores if the market becomes attractive.

In facilities where street-level retail is structurally impossible, city officials have other ideas. At one garage, they are exploring the possibility of giant art or video images. At another, Eury is trying to put together an exhibit of "artcars"--vehicles decorated as art objects uniquely popular in Houston--on the ground floor.

In some localities, parking innovations aren't quite as flashy. Tempe, Arizona, recently consolidated all of its parking into a private, nonprofit management agency. Although some parking lots are owned by the city and others are owned by the private sector, they are all now managed by the nonprofit Downtown Tempe Community Inc. The collective management has allowed the city to streamline the parking process and to offer universal incentives. Street meters, for instance, spit out coupons worth $1 off a purchase at participating businesses, so parking is essentially free if drivers buy something downtown.

Back in Toledo, the car-servicing options are also helping local businesses. "It's good for downtown vendors," says Clayton Johnston, president of the Downtown Toledo Parking Authority. "It gives them a new market to work with." For the future, city officials are looking beyond just car-related services. They are working on coordinating parking with dry-cleaning services, where drivers would drop off their clothes at the garage and pick them up there when they come to work the next day. In the future, Johnston hopes that the parking garages also will work with grocery stores and the city's farmer's market to provide food-shopping service.