“Just what the City of Dubuque needs — to spend $20 million on another parking ramp.”
That sarcastic sentiment might sum up the water cooler conversation surrounding the Dubuque City Council’s move Monday, paving the way for a new parking ramp on Central Avenue.
As City Council Member Brad Cavanagh said on Monday, “I haven’t heard from anybody from the public who is really in favor of this particular idea of a parking ramp going up.”
There are a few things at play in that viewpoint of opposition — some reality, some perception.
With the council’s approval this past week, the city is buying the property at 880 and 898 Central Ave., currently the location of Hendricks Feed & Seed, for $1.7 million. Part of the 1-acre site will be used to construct a parking ramp that the city agreed to build as part of a development agreement with Roshek Property LLC; Cottingham & Butler; and HTLF, formerly known as Heartland Financial USA. Including the land purchase, the project is expected to cost $20 million.
As a result, Hendricks Feed & Seed will move to a new location, and the existing historic buildings on the sites will be unscathed, with future plans of their resale by the city.
As with most city projects, this didn’t just come up out of the blue overnight. City staff reported that it has been exploring options and working on plans on where this specific ramp would be located for more than a year.
But the idea for a new ramp goes even further back — to well before the Roshek Building deal came about. In March 2019 — about 10 months before that deal was announced — council members approved a five-year capital improvement plan that called for a $20 million ramp project in fiscal year 2025.
That might be the reality, but around town, the perception matters, too.
Some consternation comes from the idea of another parking ramp in a downtown that already feels loaded with them. In the heart of downtown, from Fourth to 10th streets, from Bluff Street going east, there are six city parking ramps. That’s not counting the one in the Port of Dubuque. Another ramp in this same area feels like overkill.
Taxpayers are generally concerned about city spending and would like to see city leaders be frugal with public dollars. No doubt there are citizens saying, “If the city has $20 million to spend on a ramp, why don’t they help pay for the sidewalks on JFK?”
Others note that the ramps were ghost towns during the pandemic when many people worked from home, and some of them were far from full even before that. The past year-plus has changed the business culture, and many companies say remote employees likely will continue to be part of their workforce. Will the future workforce really need even more parking?
Just before the pandemic, in December 2019, the Five Flags Center ramp at 100 W. Fourth St. had 332 available parking spaces, according to city records. The ramp at 501 Iowa St. had 134 available spaces. That lends some weight to the perception that there’s plenty of parking.
But here’s what opponents might not take into consideration. Parking ramps downtown are a little like land in industrial parks: They need to be secured before business deals get brokered. City officials are trying to plan for future parking needs, not just current ones.
As for the Roshek Building deal, Cottingham & Butler and HTLF are two of the fastest-growing companies in Dubuque. Both have been good corporate citizens and have committed to downtown Dubuque — which looked like it was dying just a few decades ago. The deal didn’t demand a new parking ramp just to accommodate these workers. It called for an acceleration in the city’s already-approved plan to build a parking ramp.
What the city must continue to do is look at long-term parking solutions — which might take into account shared spaces for people who work remotely or travel for business (not to mention sick and vacation days). While we hope to see the downtown business community continue to grow and thrive, that can’t mean we keep building parking ramps.
City leaders must be mindful that local residents don’t want to look like most major metros with parking ramps casting shadows over our beautiful historic buildings.