Walk into the northeast stairwell in Garage 7 at Van Ness and Inyo avenues in downtown Fresno, but be careful of the ankle-level piece of torn, jagged metal in the first-floor doorway. It’s an injury waiting to happen.
And quite possibly, said Fresno City Manager Bruce Rudd, a lawsuit.
Walking the seven-story parking tower – known informally as the “spiral garage” for its distinctive winding ramps – Rudd and Parking Manager Del Estabrooke said there is needed maintenance everywhere – some of it vital to the structure’s integrity.
Among other problems, there is concrete chipping, cracking in a masonry wall and exposed steel strands that help give tension to concrete. That doesn’t even count everyday nuisances such as graffiti and vandalism, or design flaws like too much space between handrails on the stairways.
Absent action, the problem will only get worse.
City officials recently hired the engineering firm Walter P. Moore and Associates to assess the five downtown garages’ maintenance needs and put together a 10-year repair plan, as well as estimating how much the fixes will cost.
In the spiral garage alone, it is $2.76 million in deferred maintenance by 2025. Of that total, more than $860,000 in repairs are considered high priority.
It’s even worse a few blocks to the north where the three-level Garage 8 sits under Van Ness Avenue near Courthouse Park. The repair needs there exceed $3 million. In some places, water leaking from above into faulty expansion joints already is so bad that the city rigged up a system to catch water coming through to stop it from falling onto the parked cars.
And Garage 9, at Van Ness and Merced Street, is similar to the spiral garage; there are immediate safety repairs needed.
Like everything else, stuff wears out.
Fresno City Manager Bruce Rudd
All total, there is a steadily increasing backlog of maintenance and repair needs in Fresno’s downtown parking garages that will cost $9 million, according to the assessment ordered by Rudd. Some of the needs are immediate, such as crumbling concrete; others are lower priority but if not addressed will only worsen.
It’s all very simple, Rudd said: “Like everything else, stuff wears out.”
As Rudd prepares to retire around the time when current Mayor Ashley Swearengin leaves office at the end of the year, he wants to make the council aware of some of the city’s deteriorating assets. Similar assessments have been done on the city’s maintenance yard at El Dorado and G streets and on Camp Fresno, the city-owned facility at Dinkey Creek.
City Council members said they’re well aware of the city’s needs, and both they and Rudd agree that it goes well beyond parking garages. The parking garages just happen to be important at this time as the city prepares to tear up Fulton Mall and once again bring cars to the stretch once known as “Fresno’s Main Street.”
The hope is restaurants, businesses and residential units will follow. Chukchansi Park, with its primary tenant, the Fresno Grizzlies baseball team, is already here. If all goes well, people will need places to park.
“What we have not done in the last three decades is really learn how to maintain our assets when we have them,” Councilman Oliver L. Baines III said. “Parking garages are no exception to that. It’s something that we as a city are struggling with, period, because we have never done it.”
For city officials, the question is what to do about it?
Baines said he thinks the city should attack the parking garage problem in increments, as was laid out over the next 10 years in the Walter P. Moore and Associates’ study.
Cutting the ribbon and moving on
Rudd sees parking maintenance like any other city asset, and he points out what he says is a reality of all government: Officials love to be there for the ribbon-cutting on anything new, but there’s not much political capital to be found in ongoing maintenance.
For instance, few would attend the unveiling of a renovated bathroom at a city park, even though several city park bathrooms need repair and maintenance. It’s why it is easier to find cash for new projects than for repair and maintenance, Rudd said.
Garages, experts point out, are different than buildings. They are open-air so they deteriorate faster because of temperature changes and rain. Heavy cars are constantly driving in and out.
Other than the Fresno Convention Center garage, a behemoth built during Alan Autry’s time as mayor that can hold 1,565 cars, most of downtown’s parking garages were built for a bygone era, when the center city held all kinds of department stores along the Fulton Mall.
What we have not done in the last three decades is really learn how to maintain our assets when we have them.
Fresno City Councilman Oliver L. Baines III
Now, they sit underused, so they aren’t generating enough revenue for repairs and maintenance – and the city isn’t setting aside other money to do the repair jobs.
Rudd said the city needs to make $70 per stall each month at the parking garages to run basic operations such as turning on the lights, doing landscaping and maintaining the structure. To keep up with deferred maintenance, an additional $20 per stall each month is needed.
Here is the problem: Instead of making $90 per stall monthly, the city is earning $30 to $35 per stall.
“Which is why the garages look like they do,” Rudd said.
Parking – once an independent fund – is now part of the General Fund. The city projects that parking will generate $5.1 million in revenue, largely through meters, fines and those who pay monthly to park. Still, that won’t cover the expenses, which are salaries, utilities, general maintenance and paying the firm that operates the garages and surface parking lots. Those costs are estimated to be $5.5 million in the current fiscal year. That means the General Fund is on the hook for a $400,000 parking fund subsidy this year.
It also means no money for capital and infrastructure maintenance. And each year that passes without that funding, the city falls further behind in maintenance.
There are options, though all have a downside.
$90 what the city needs to earn per month per stall to keep up with basic expenses and deferred maintenance on its parking garages
$30 to $35 what the city is actually earning per stall per month
The city could increase parking rates, but Rudd points out that could hurt the push to revitalize downtown. Getting people to come downtown to shop or eat or go to a Grizzlies game gets harder if parking costs more.
Another option is selling the garages; if the city does that, Rudd said, it would lose control over the rates people are charged to park. A private company could raise rates as it wished.
Councilman Lee Brand isn’t a fan of multi-story parking garages. He favors surface lots, which were also studied by the Walter Moore engineers. Not surprisingly, the maintenance needs were far less for city-owned surface lots than for the multi-story garages.
Brand said any new multi-story garages should be built and financed by private developers.
Still, the city-owned garages are there, and Brand said the worst-case scenario would be to let them deteriorate to the point they are no longer safe. They would then have to be closed, thus generating no revenue – and the city would still have to pay insurance on them.
The garages in the worst shape, according to the Walter Moore study, were the spiral garage and Garage 9. Walter Moore engineers found dangerous situations in both garages.
At Garage 9, it was a concrete support that holds up a crossbeam. It was so bad that city officials did an immediate patch job that will have to be retrofitted later to keep the garage safe. In the meantime, fewer cars are being allowed to park in that part of the garage, which is costing the city revenue.
In the spiral garage, it is the steel strands that help give tension to concrete. Walter Moore engineers say those strands help hold the structure together. A few have ruptured and need to be fixed immediately. There is also a chance that concrete could fall on pedestrians walking below.
Despite this, City Council members in December balked at a proposal to fund some of the emergency repairs. City officials said there was close to $8 million in leftover cash when they did a final closing of the books on the fiscal year that ended last June 30. They then proposed ways to spend the excess cash.
The council agreed to every proposal except one – it took $400,000 slated for repairs to the two garages and instead put it in a fund for infrastructure repair such as filling potholes, fixing sidewalks, repairing street lights or trimming trees.
For a refresher on how bad it can get in a parking garage, all anyone has to do is recall the travails of the Fresno Convention Center parking garage. The city-owned, three-story, 380-space garage opened in the mid-1980s but in April 1998 was closed – for the third time. It reopened 18 months later with reinforced beams. The cost was more than $370,000 – and $200,000 in lost parking revenue.
That garage wasn’t a victim of deferred maintenance as much as, it seems, poor initial construction. Shortly after its completion, it was shut down with a cracked beam.
In 2013, the city sold the garage and adjacent conference center for $2.4 million to the company that owns the adjacent hotel, which is currently a DoubleTree by Hilton.
Epidemic of larger issues
Both Rudd and council members said the city has a lot to consider when it comes to maintaining its assets – parking garages and a lot more. Take neighborhood streets, for example.
Rudd said the city needs about $16 million each year for maintenance – just the streets, not the curbs and gutters. And that’s just neighborhood streets, not major thoroughfares such as Shaw, Blackstone or Herndon avenues. In reality, about $2 million annually is going toward neighborhood street maintenance.
We are way behind on every asset we own. We haven’t done any of it well.
Fresno City Councilman Olivier Baines
“We are way behind on every asset we own,” Baines said. “We haven’t done any of it well. (Parking garages) are a big piece but one of many pieces. We could have the same conversation about any asset we have.”
And in that respect, Fresno isn’t unique. Maintaining assets is a struggle for many cities, Rudd said.
But Baines said Fresno is a poor city with a small tax base. He said the best way to increase the city’s tax base – which would increase the amount of money available for asset maintenance – is simple: “Put people to work in our city – period. It’s something we must do.”
Downtown parking garages
Garage 9 (Van Ness Ave. and Merced St.)
213 spaces/75,020 square feet
10-year deferred maintenance need: $959,000
High priority needs: $325,000
Garage 8 (“Underground Garage”/Van Ness and Tulare avenues)
968 spaces/377,862 square feet
10-year deferred maintenance need: $3,006,000
High priority needs: $587,000
Garage 7 (“Spiral Garage”/Van Ness and Inyo avenues)
587 spaces/234,234 square feet
10-year deferred maintenance need: $2,762,000
High priority needs: $864,000
Garage 4 (Tulare Avenue and Fulton Mall)
313 spaces/130,680 square feet
10-year deferred maintenance need: $1,136,000
High priority needs: $232,000
Convention Center Garage
1,565 spaces/581,400 square feet
10-year deferred maintenance need: $1,156,000
High priority needs: $83,000