Despite the common misperception, there is plenty of public parking available in downtown Bismarck. The real issue is how public parking is integrated with more productive uses.
Five of the six city-owned parking facilities in downtown are used exclusively for parking — two surface lots at Third and Rosser and Fifth and Thayer, and three ramps at Sixth and Thayer, Seventh and Broadway and Third and Main.
Properties devoted exclusively to parking are commercial dead-zones, with none of the street-level storefronts and activity that make downtown vibrant and attractive. Instead of wasting valuable real estate on an ancillary use that generates no tax revenue, public parking should be integrated into mixed-use buildings that add to the tax base and attract residents, businesses and customers to downtown.
An example of the right approach for public parking is the Parkade at Sixth and Broadway, which is integrated into a larger structure that houses commercial and retail uses. The Parkade is admittedly dated, but the general concept is sound. The street level is filled with retail and commercial storefronts, while the parking element is barely noticeable. That should be the goal for all downtown parking facilities.
Unfortunately, none of the other city parking facilities provide for mixed uses, including the newest ramp at Sixth and Thayer. The new ramp is attractive (as far as parking ramps go) and its architecture and signage pay homage to the Carnegie Library once located on the same block. It’s certainly a more thoughtful and inspired design than the neo-Brutalist eyesore at Third and Main.
But while aesthetically pleasing, the ramp should have been designed to accommodate additional uses. Instead, the city took an entire half-block that once included retail and commercial uses and turned it into one of the least exciting stretches of downtown — particularly unfortunate directly across the street from the Belle Mehus Auditorium, downtown’s premier cultural amenity.
The next time the city wants to build a parking ramp or rehab an existing ramp, it should ensure the project has multiple uses. The city could sell the land to a developer, require a certain amount of public parking be included in the project, and then lease the parking area back from the developer. Or it could create a commercial condominium, retain the parking unit, and sell the other units. The city could even retain ownership of the entire project and lease the retail and commercial space to private businesses.
From a design perspective, there are various ways to integrate parking into a larger structure. In many parts of downtown, an underground parking ramp is not an option due to groundwater conditions. But where feasible, an underground ramp should be considered, leaving commercial and retail space (or perhaps a small park) on top. If not, the parking should be constructed above street-level and can even be sandwiched between lower and upper floors.
Designing and building a mixed-use project that incorporates public parking is more complicated and costs more money on the front end, but the long-term benefits are worth the effort.
Depending on how ownership is structured, costs can be shared with a private developer or the city can offset construction costs by leasing out or selling commercial and retail space. Private uses also generate property and sales tax revenue, while city-owned parcels devoted exclusively to parking contribute nothing to the tax base.
Most importantly, mixed-use parking projects will help make the heart of our city more attractive to residents, businesses and customers.
Downtown real estate is a valuable and finite resource. Devoting so many properties exclusively to public parking is bad public policy and detracts from the vibrancy of downtown.