Parking for the Long Center and Palmer Events Center — Background and Misdirected Criticism

Allegations have resurfaced that the Bouldin Neighborhood Association has thwarted attempts to provide adequate venue-based parking for the Long Center and Palmer Events Center. This note relates the history of the project as relates to parking and should put to rest this misdirected criticism of the neighborhood’s positions and actions. Given that the City Council’s June 9, 2011 resolution directs the City Manager to analyze current parking shortcomings, the issue has come again to the forefront.

During the master planning meetings in Spring, 1999, leading up to that summer’s Town Lake Park Master Plan charettes, a thorough parking demand analysis was performed by WHM Transportation Engineering Consultants Inc. The demand analysis took into account parking demand associated with the Long Center, Palmer Events Center, Daugherty Arts Center, and the park, operating at full capacity in all their planned venues. As events at Palmer typically experience highest demand during the daytime and Long Center events at night, the demand curves for the two facilities were generally complementary. Parking for the park and Daugherty is generally satisfied by available surface parking that was not included in the garage analysis, but that demand was nevertheless factored into the analysis.

WHM followed industry standard guidelines in assessing the appropriate level of parking availability. The industry standard is to supply of total peak demand. Serving beyond this 85% threshold would lead to the additional spaces being used too rarely to justify the construction expense. Rather, when events are projected to exceed that threshold, off-site supplementary parking plans, perhaps including shuttles, are normally required, as is often done for major events at various Austin venues. The City Hall/CSC/AMLI complex was viewed as a sensible and adequate resource for supplementing public parking directly available to the venue.

The peak demand period identified was on Saturday afternoons, when 2420 spaces would be required, 2100 of those resulting from capacity events at the PEC. Applying the 85% metric results in a requirement to supply 2057 spaces directly available to the venue. It should be noted that the demand figures included demand of 120 spaces for park users, but that this demand would be satisfied primarily by surface parking on the park site. Nevertheless, the demand was factored into the garage analysis.

Financial projections for the car rental tax supported only enough revenue for the venue to construct 1000 on-site garage spaces, but the 85% threshold required much more. Directly adjacent to the venue, though, the One Texas Center garage, which is little used during peak event hours, could provide 700 spaces, and the AustinEnergy garage at 721 Barton Springs Road could provide another 250. Both garages were offered for weekend and evening public use. Furthermore, AustinEnergy offered to fund an additional 200 parking spaces in the on-site garage. The resulting 2150 spaces easily satisfied the recommended 85% of measured demand, achieving 88% of peak demand. The only other periods exceeding this availablity were Sunday afternoons (peak 2228, driven by PEC events) and a a ten minute period on Friday evening when full capacity at Long and a tailoff in park activity produced demand of 2170 spaces, the park component of which would be satisfied by park surface parking as previously noted. Evening activities at the Long Center, even with all three of its planned venues at capacity, never would create enough demand to reach the level parking directly available to the venue.

The problem, then, seem to have been safely solved. Supplementary procedures such as valet parking, shuttle vehicles to the One Texas Center and 721 garages, could be put in place for patrons for whom the short walk from a garage was troublesome. If a major PEC event exceeded availability, garages just north of the river could provide overflow parking, and shuttle service could make attendance from those locations would make them amendable.

Simultaneous full capacity events at both facilities would not be remotely feasible under any achievable circumstance, so a decision was made that some management coordination would be required to avoid such circumstances. Major PEC events like the Christmas Affair could not be co-scheduled with major Long Center events such as an afternoon opera performance. (Though this decision was made clear at the time, it was thoroughly ignored shortly after the Long Center’s opening, when a major Long Center even ran simultaneously with a major event at the PEC and the Reggae Fest at Auditorium Shores. This experience served as a stern reminder that management coordination was necessary and that ignoring the previous understanding had very negative consequences. Since that rocky beginning, all facilities have cooperated effectively on scheduling.)

To be absolutely clear, the reason the on-site garage was sized at 1200 spaces was precisely that the City believed, based on venue revenue projections, that it could not finance a larger facility. No one would have balked if more money were available, but it was not.

With this data in hand, the master planners were instructed to develop a 1200 space garage on-site. It was footprinted at the 1999 Master Plan charette, designed by Evan Tanaguchi of the Barnes-Tanaguchi Partnership, and developed along with the Palmer Events Center. The neighborhood had input into the garage design process and sought a design that would not create a concrete canyon effect on Barton Springs Road. Tanaguchi was sensitive to this input and designed the elongated, curved garage with significant setback from the street and height that would dominate neither the PEC nor the Long Center buildings.

Extraordinarily late in the design process, the Long Center became concerned about on-site parking availability and petitioned the City to accept a loan that would fortify the construction of the garage so that it could support construction of additional levels at a later date. To be clear, there was no offer by the Long Center to fund the eventual garage expansion; that would be at the expense of the City. Since the financial burden of providing the garage expansion would fall on the venue as surely as if the garage were upsized immediately, the same constraint applied: there were insufficient anticipated revenues to pay for it. Doing so would radically affect the availability of funds for planned park construction. Additionally, the neighborhood objected that the proposal to eventually upsize the garage with additional levels would violate the design principles that had led to Tanaguchi’s design. Incorporation of these design principles was one a many complex factors in the nest of compromises formulated in the master plan. Yet Long Center loudly pilloried the neighborhood for its objections, blaming the neighbors for thwarting their parking desires and convincing the American-Statesman editorial board to echo this criticism of the neighborhood. But the predominate and definitive reason the loan was rejected was fiscal. The project could not bear the financial burden of accepting the loan and financing the eventual expansion. Moreover, the professional parking demand study, which was based on Long Center data, and the resulting parking component of the master plan established that needs were to be met within all standard planning guidelines by the existing parking plan.

Trouble surfaced after September 11, 2001, when AustinEnergy withdrew its spaces at 721 Barton Springs Road from availability to the venue, citing fears of terrorism. This appears to have been a ruse, as the building houses no operationally critical procedures or equipment. Project stakeholders, including the neighborhood, have petitioned over the years for the AustinEnergy spaces to once again be made available for non-business hour use. Councilmember Riley’s late addition to the June 9, 2011 City Council resolution regarding the venue project speaks directly to a desire for AustinEnergy to abide by its original agreement to make these spaces available.

It is remarkable that vitriolic stories have resurfaced blaming the neighborhood for thwarting the success of the Long Center by opposing the garage expansion. Neighborhood opposition, while it existed, was not the deciding factor in the City’s refusal to accept the Long Center proposal. The real reason was fiscal.

Furthermore, the existing shortage is due to AustinEnergy’s withdrawal of its commitment to offer its garage during evening and weekend hours.

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