Hoping to spur even more downtown development, city officials want to put a reverse spin on that old Joni Mitchell record about paving paradise to put up a parking lot.
Reflecting the theory that many of the surface lots in the central business district could be put to more-productive use, the city next week will solicit proposals for its lot at Main and Harrison streets and could issue more "request for proposals" for additional lots owned by the city or other interested parties later in the year, according to Redevelopment Director Nancy Townsend.
Because of its proximity to the riverfront and the Columbia Street "Landing" — both of which are targets of multimillion-dollar improvement plans — the city's 0.75-acre Main Street lot is low-hanging fruit but hardly the only cherry on the tree. Downtown is dotted with parking lots, many of them once the site of glorious buildings, and Townsend said many would-be developers have expressed interest in turning back the clock in a way that would generate investment, taxes, economic activity and jobs in the process.
When Vera Bradley co-founder Barbara Bradley Baekgaard recently revealed plans for a 120-room "boutique" Provenance Hotel downtown, for example, it was also announced a site had not yet been secured. The city's Main Street lot may or may not be suitable for that project (I suspect a location further south is preferred), but Townsend said there's been no shortage of interest in the property.
And it's already been demonstrated how "bundling" several properties can attract development that would have been more difficult on a piecemeal basis. The not-for-profit Downtown Development Trust bought most of the Landing before the Cincinnati-based Model Group was hired to lead the historic block's $35 million residential and commercial makeover.
The city, in fact, had hoped to include other lots in its initial RFP. Allen County Library officials declined to include one of the library's lots, but Townsend hopes additional owners will participate in the planned future offerings.
"With investors and developers showing a lot of interest, now is a good time (to do this)," she said. "Our goal is to encourage redevelopment downtown. There could be a higher and better use than surface parking. We can do better."
Once proposals are received, city officials will evaluate them to determine their compatibility with existing and future downtown plans, their beneficial impact on "quality of place" and the applicant's ability to complete the project. The city would then select the preferred applicant and begin negotiations, Townsend said.
The offering of the city's Main Street lot is especially welcome because, as I have noted previously, the initial $20 million phase of riverfront development will create mostly more park space because the city could not use its power of eminent domain to acquire property for private use. Nothing wrong with parks, certainly, but riverfront development excites people because it has the potential to attract more places to eat, drink and have fun. As Townsend suggested, the city's lot is ideally located for that purpose.
How much would the city want for this or other lots? Would it be willing to donate the property in exchange for the right project? How many incentives, if any, would be available to the developer? All of that, and more, will depend on details and negotiations, as would the answer to another obvious question: Would private property owners be better off working with the city than marketing the land themselves?
Then, of course, there's this: If the city really does succeed in filling empty spaces downtown, where are all those people using the lots now going to park?
But those are all good problems to have, because they reflect something that until recently hadn't been true in a long time: Downtown property is in demand, and the city is wise to accommodate that demand if possible. No one is going to write a lament about losing a parking lot in favor of paradise.
This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at email@example.com or call him at 461-8355.