Boston drivers face costly crunch as parking disappears

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BOSTON – For three years, the dilapidated city-owned Winthrop Square garage in Boston’s Financial District has sat vacant, nearly a decade after it was designated as a site for a new skyscraper by City Hall.

When the Boston Redevelopment Authority closed the garage, ostensibly for engineering reviews, it took the best parking deal downtown away from long-suffering Hub commuters who paid just $20 a day for one of its 435 spaces. Only a few years earlier, it was even cheaper – and this in a neighborhood where the average daily rate was close to $40 even in 2013.

The city’s main economic development agency is currently reviewing six proposals to make the concrete eyesore sandwiched between Devonshire and Federal Streets into an iconic building, perhaps the city’s tallest structure at 725 feet. But so far no one has said whether all those parking spots will be replaced.

If recent history is any guide, the answer will be no, or at least, not all of them. And those that are replaced will probably cost twice as much to use.

For example, the authority recently approved the redevelopment of the massive Government Center garage with two towers. The concrete edifice that echoes City Hall’s brutalist architecture provides 2,130 parking spots, but under the plan approved in January, about half of those spaces will be eliminated and not replaced.

This comes as the skyline in Boston is rapidly changing with several other new towers currently under construction or planned, including two towers that will take the place of the Government Center garage. It currently has spaces for 2,310 cars and the plan approved by the BRA in January will end up eliminating half of those spaces, cutting the number available to the public to fewer than 600.

City planners said the hulking garage is practically never full. But the weekday rate, at $38, offers no bargain, and the garage is a long walk from the Financial District, the North End and Beacon Hill.

The growing demand for space for new buildings has developers eying public parking garages and surface lots, especially in the Seaport District near Fan Pier, as development sites. And it appears city residents who own cars and commuters are at risk of becoming the odd-man out in the process. That can leave drivers fuming.

“I’ve heard some terrible horror stories, especially during the summer,” said Ryan Kenny, who heads the traffic and parking committee of the North End Waterfront Neighborhood Association. Drivers sometimes spend hours circling around the neighborhood looking for a place to park, including residents with parking permits.

“People had to double-park their car and hope it’s still there in the morning or were forced to put it in a parking garage and pay $40 for it,” Kenny said.

Kenny, who moved to the neighborhood in 2006 and struggled with on-street parking for years believes the neighborhood of mostly narrow streets has a huge problem. The city has issued about 4,000 residential parking permits but there are only 1,500 on-street spots reserved for drivers who live in the North End, he said.

“The streets are old and small there’s only so much you can do,” said Kenny, who believes a lot of residents who can’t afford off-street parking rely on finding a space on curbside parking. “I don’t know how the city could help unless they build a parking garage just for residents,” he said.

The city did build the Government Center garage in the late 1960s, finishing the five-year project in 1972, according to the BRA. But about 10 years later, Boston sold the structure to private parties and it was placed in a real estate trust. Whether City Hall required the new owners to offer discounted rates to local residents couldn’t be determined, but it advertises $375 a month for a spot, or about $12.50 a day.

Current design standards call for 75 parking spaces per 100 residential units for new development in Boston’s downtown area, according to the city’s transportation department. Often, if a proposed building is close to public transportation and bike-friendly areas, such as the towers planned for the Government Center garage site, it can be even less.

Plans for Lovejoy Wharf in the North End, home to the Converse shoe company and 175 luxury condominiums, were accepted by the city department even though no parking would be provided. Transportation officials allowed it because of the proximity of North Station and transit lines connecting to it.

At the redevelopment authority, planners seem to see the availability of bicycles, bike-sharing facilities and storage as another alternative transportation mode, as well as ride- and car-sharing services like Uber and Zipcar. Apparently, the city’s official line is to assume there will be less demand for parking because fewer people will be driving to work or just to get around town.

But data suggest the opposite may be true. As the city’s population has grown to 645,966 in 2010 from 589,141 in 2000, a gain of almost 57,000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the number of registered motored vehicles owned by Boston residents has climbed. By last year, 333,420 vehicles were registered in the city,  a gain of about 5 percent from 316,860 in 2011, according to the Massachusetts Department of Transportation. So the competition for parking spots has only more intense and costs have risen.

For some deep-pocketed residents, the solution has been to spend as much as it would cost to buy a home for a rectangle of tar where they can park legally near their homes. According to the real estate research site in March 2016, a deeded parking spot at 70 Brimmer St. on Beacon Hill sold for $390,000. Another, at 388 Marlborough St. in Back Bay, fetched $305,000.

Last year, a space at the Brimmer Street Garage went on the market listed $650,000, producing national news headlines. Boston magazine reported the per-square-foot price topped that of a penthouse condo in the Millennium Tower across Boston Common from Beacon Hill.

“I had cousins from North Carolina calling me up because they saw it on local news,” said David Bates, a realty agent who believes that parking spots remain in high demand and prices are continuing to go up. One pair of spots behind 298 Commonwealth Ave. in Back bay sold for $560,000 in June 2013, according to a report in the Boston Globe. Even for cars, apparently, it’s all about location.

Parking availability can enhance real estate values, Bates said; even if the spot is just rented it could raise the value of an apartment by as much as two-thirds compared with a similar unit that lacks secured parking.

The average rent per month for a parking spot in Boston proper is about $300, said Jeff Liao, a real-estate agent at Proper Realty Group in Allston.

“There is definitely a shortage of parking,” Liao said, particularly for residents.  “People are getting a lot of tickets for parking illegally.”

In Allston, where many college students live, spots typically cost from $100 to $150 a month. Liao said he has had clients from the area call in willing to pay even more.

To ease the financial strain, many city residents ditch their cars and either walk or ride public transit, Bates said. He said ride-share services like Uber are gaining popularity, as well as the Hubway bike-share system and other alternatives for getting around in Boston. Many new developments, Bates added, are sited near public transportation stops to reduce the need for a car.

But some can’t do without their wheels.

“If three roommates are looking for three-car parking – yeah good luck!” he said.

In City Hall, Vineet Gupta knows there’s more and more demand for better public transit. He’s the director of planning for the transportation department. Through community meetings and surveys, his staff has delved into the extent of that demand. But he has also encouraged residents to think about other transportation options, including Zipcar and ride-share services instead of taking a personal car.

“As more and more people use ride-share services there will be less of a need for parking spaces,” Gupta said. He said that will open up more spaces for those who don’t live near public transportation and still need to commute into the city.

Gupta added that less than half of today’s commuters drive into the city today. Instead, many take subways, commuter trains or buses. And still others have moved into town to be close enough to work to walk to the office.

“The city is striking the right balance for those who do need parking to have it, but also not to create more congestion,” Gupta said.

A WBUR-FM poll conducted earlier this month showed that 57 percent of Boston-area residents say traffic has gotten worse over the past five years. The survey said Hub residents preferred transit service improvements over fixing roads or bridges, saying the first priority should be to make T service more reliable and accessible.

The poll found that 42 percent of area residents commute using public transit, while two thirds drive or use carpools, and some do both, driving to a subway stop or train station and going on from there. Many said they use multiple means of transportation on a regular basis. A significant number said traffic congestion has led them to consider moving to get away from it.

For Boston commuters, sitting stuck in rush traffic hour routinely consumes 64 hours a year, chewing up 30 gallons of fuel and swiping almost $1,400 from their wallets, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal. And for the less harried motorists just trying to come into the city to shop or have a good time, all that congestion can devolve into one issue: No inexpensive place to park.

For residents as well, that can mean lots of time and fuel spent circling the streets looking for a spot.

“It becomes such a stressful thing,” said Kenny in the North End. “You can only have you car towed so many times before you get frustrated.”