City officials and local business owners have been wrangling over the future of $10 million of “Recreation Hotspot” state funding allocated to the Moab area from the Utah Transportation Commission.
A large portion of the money is currently set aside for a parking garage downtown. Lately, some vocal business owners and residents have questioned whether the garage will serve the needs of the community, and whether the city is truly “locked in” to that project.
Some have suggested that funds could be better spent on another project; city councilmembers are divided, with some saying they still support the parking garage, and others expressing doubts and a desire to re-examine the city’s options.
On Feb. 18, the Moab City and Grand County councils held a special joint meeting to discuss, among other things, the fate of the Hotspot funding. Later that day the city had scheduled a workshop to discuss the parking structure project with members of the Design Advisory Committee (DAC) and UDOT representatives. Both meetings revealed a range of perspectives, suggestions, and emotions.
Origins of the ‘Hotspot’ funding
In 2017, the Utah State Legislature earmarked $100 million for the Utah Transportation Commission to distribute to “recreation hotspots,” areas that experience significant congestion due to tourism. Moab joined communities across the state in developing project proposals that could be eligible for a piece of that funding.
A committee of elected officials and stakeholders was formed to develop ideas. Per the hotspot funding criteria, they focused on three goals for the proposed projects: reducing congestion, supporting economic development, and increasing tourism and recreation opportunities.
The list of possible projects included a long-discussed truck bypass around downtown Moab, improvements to Kane Creek Boulevard, funding a Bike Share program, an expansion of Highway 191 on the south end of town, a “shared-use” pathway connecting Spanish Valley to existing bike lanes and the Millcreek Parkway, Main Street improvements, and other parking solutions north and south of town. Each project was evaluated using a point system, scoring on how well they fit the funding criteria and how much they would benefit the community.
Ultimately, the committee chose proposals to build a parking structure and develop dispersed parking downtown to apply for the Hotspot funding.
Four areas in Utah were awarded funds. Approximately $66 million was awarded to improvements to the Cottonwood Canyon roads outside of Salt Lake City; the Zion area was awarded $15 million for a shuttle between St. George and Springdale; the Bear Lake area in northern Utah received $8.3 million for road and arena improvements; and the Moab area was awarded $10 million to be divided between the downtown parking structure and dispersed parking downtown.
City and county representatives, as well as business owners and citizens, all took part in the brainstorming and evaluation process, giving community leaders the impression that there was wide buy-in for the selected projects. However, many attitudes have changed.
A parking study complicates the picture
In May of 2019, the City of Moab commissioned a parking study, which has been the focus of much of the debate surrounding the project.
The study concluded that, as of the time of the study, “there is ample parking available in the study area for the needs of all land uses and the desires of all drivers to park vehicles,” and “Moab is in a good position with more total parking available than is needed to meet the demand.” Read the full study online at www.moabsunnews.com
However, the study also says that there are certain areas in downtown “where parking demand exceeds parking supply,” including the location of the proposed garage.
Some locals have spoken out, pointing to the study as conclusive proof that the parking structure is not addressing a real community need. At public meetings, citizens speaking against the structure at public meetings interpreted the study as illustrating that there is not a parking problem in Moab.
“The garage was advocated on the claim that parking in Moab is severely constrained, especially during the tourist season,” said Matt Hancock, a Main Street property owner, at a city council meeting on Feb. 11. “Yet the city’s own parking study, that was commissioned after the garage was decided upon, concluded the opposite.”
Some businesses have asked why the parking structure project has been singled out for support and funding over other proposed solutions.
The parking study does not rule out a downtown parking structure, but includes it among nine other recommendations for “things that Moab can do to enhance parking and increase efficiency of parking utilization.”
One recommendation, and by far the most expensive, is the proposed downtown parking structure. Other suggestions include delineating parking spaces on Main Street and imposing a time limit on those stalls and installing signs to help drivers find existing city parking and pedestrians find nearby destinations.
“Those are all things that the city is planning to undertake,” said Moab Mayor Emily Niehaus, who supports the downtown parking structure plans.
Niehaus says she views the Hotspot funding as an opportunity to have the state pay for the most expensive solution, while the city could tackle the more affordable elements of parking improvements.
However, it’s unclear when those improvements would happen, as Niehaus also noted that the city is hesitant to begin implementing changes on the cusp of the large UDOT highway widening project scheduled to begin in March of this year.
“The widening project is going to be a lot,” she said. “It’s not responsible to do those at the same time.”
One issue the city is currently working on, aside from the garage, is dispersed parking on the north end of Main Street. City staff have been looking for opportunities to expand parking options there as part of the hotspot funding and in anticipation of the highway widening project removing parking from Main Street in that area. Twenty stalls on Emma Boulevard, a street just west of north Main, are in the planning stages. However, north Main Street businesses have been frustrated with what they feel are unclear communications from the city and inadequate solutions for the pending parking scarcity. Some community members began to resent the parking structure as they felt other, more urgent needs were not addressed.
UDOT’s Plans for Main Street Parking
In the spring of 2019, during deliberation on hotspot funding projects, the Moab City Council discussed Main Street improvements with UDOT officials. UDOT proposed their own ideas, including adding a median strip through downtown Moab and eliminating on-street parking in that corridor. Main Street, though an integral part of the city, is controlled and maintained by UDOT as part of Highway 191.
Councilmembers balked at the proposal, and Anderson assured them that the state Hotspot funding would not be dependent on the removal of Main Street parking.
That assurance was revisited at the Feb. 11 meeting. Councilmember Mike Duncan introduced a resolution to pause work on the design process, citing, as one of his reasons, the fact that Main Street parking was not in jeopardy. The potential loss of Main Street parking, in Duncan’s view, was one of the main reasons a garage might be needed. Anderson was also in attendance at that meeting; he clarified the promise he made to the council regarding the issue. His response was unlikely to reassure Main Street business owners or those attached to on-street parking.
“I don’t believe I ever committed to a lifetime of parking on Main Street,” he said, though he did reiterate that on-street parking on Main would not be revoked as a “connected action” to the parking garage funding.
However, he added that as far as the future of Main Street, “we do have the right to do with it as we like.”
He then softened this remark, stating that UDOT would never remove Main Street parking “without some type of consultation” with the city.
“It’s not going to be done in the dark of the night, and it’s not going to be done as a connected action with this parking structure,” he said.
Moving Ahead on the Downtown Structure
In May of 2019, the City of Moab entered into an agreement with UDOT which detailed the terms of the project: $8.3 million would be paid by the State of Utah to build a parking garage on a lot already owned by the city, mid-block between 100 North and Center Street. The lot is behind Miguel’s Baja Grill and Cowboys and Indians Trading Co. on Main Street, and behind Arches Thai and Forget Me Knot Flowers & Gifts on 100 West.
Initial plans for the structure included 320 parking stalls on four levels, one underground and three above including a rooftop level. Per the agreement, no more than $498,000 of the money awarded was to be used for “structural aesthetics.” The state’s obligation would end with construction; the City of Moab would be responsible for construction as well as all maintenance costs once the structure was complete. Any remaining funds would be allocated to dispersed parking improvements, such as those evolving on Emma Boulevard.
Growing dissent over project costs, rationale
Some Moab businesses and citizens have publicly questioned the wisdom of the downtown parking structure project, and those voices have grown louder and stronger in recent weeks. Opponents of the project have a variety of concerns, from the price of the structure, its impact on Main Street businesses, the aesthetics of the large structure, and concerns about potential ethical issues in how the structure was planned.
Scott Newton is the owner of Poison Spider Bicycles on North Main Street; he sent letters to city councilmembers pointing out that while businesses on North Main would be losing their on-street parking to the Highway 191 widening project, the proposed parking structure would be too far away from those businesses to serve them.
He is unconvinced that the spaces planned on Emma Boulevard will be enough, or that they will be convenient to Main Street businesses. He also sent emails to city council members expressing disappointment that changes made to plans for this project were not better publicized.
Others worry that the structure will be ugly, will spoil the Moab viewshed, or will be an attractive site for crime.
“Moab’s viewshed is one of its main assets,” said Moab resident Marc Thomas at a city council meeting on Feb. 11. “This could look like a jagged tooth interrupting the streetscape.”
“I grew up in Boulder, Colorado, and it started out as a funky little town like Moab did,” said Duncan, lamenting the fact that his hometown now has “forty-foot buildings lining the streets.” He wants to avoid that fate for Moab.
Other commenters have pointed out that many of the nearest businesses to the proposed exit of the structure are owned by Moab local Mike Bynum. They suspect that Bynum’s wealth and influence have earned him special treatment from UDOT, the city, or both.
“It’s mostly benefiting those that are directly next to it,” said Ryan Bird, owner of the Moab Garage Co. on Main Street. The west and south sides of the project site are owned by Utah Desert Investments, a company with which Bynum is associated. To the east of the structure, the back lots of Main Street businesses form a kind of alley, though not one through which public traffic can flow.
Buildings on Main Street are connected, providing no through-access directly from the garage to Main Street; preliminary drawings show vehicle ingress and egress on the west side, with a pedestrian entrance and exit on the south side.
Bynum himself responded to accusations of favoritism for his properties in the structure plans, saying at the Feb. 11 council meeting, “I hope this will benefit the whole community… No one cares about this community more than I do.”
Niehaus later added that designs were far from finalized and might incorporate other ideas from community members, like considering access points from the structure directly onto Main Street.
Councilmember Karen Guzman-Newton, who is on the design advisory committee for the structure, also expressed discomfort with the planning process, indicating that meetings with Kimley-Horn, a consultant firm hired by the city, were focused on aesthetic details instead of the costs involved or whether there was community support for the structure at all. Councilmember Rani Derasary said she liked the idea of taking a step back to re-evaluate.
“Sometimes as a community, you need a moment to pivot,” she said.
At the Feb. 18 joint meeting, Guzman-Newton presented what she titled a “Statement of Consensus,” which proposed going back to the Utah Transportation Commission and asking if the hotspot money could be redirected towards a town shuttle system. Some council members appeared blind-sided by the letter, which does not reflect an existing consensus but rather one Guzman-Newton hopes to achieve.
Grand County Councilmember Curtis Wells strongly supported the letter.
“I think it’s very brave, what you’re doing,” he said to Guzman-Newton. “You’re putting on paper what everybody’s thinking but what everybody’s afraid to say.
Wells was a major driver in securing the Hotspot funding in 2017. He spoke as a citizen at an earlier city council meeting, endorsing the idea of re-directing the hotspot funding to a different project.
“I feel an obligation and responsibility to make sure that we get this project right,” he said of the hotspot funding, which, he reminded those in attendance, was a one-time distribution, not a yearly grant.
Referring to Guzman-Newton’s statement, Wells said, “I think the direction that you’re trying to go with this much more in alignment with that spirit of collaboration and finding projects that benefit the city and the county.”
Grand County Councilmember Jaylyn Hawks, who was on the original committee that generated project ideas for the hotspot funding, also supported the letter.
“It does nothing for the congestion or economic opportunities,” she said of the proposed structure. “Some of the other suggestions are much more aligned with those goals.”
Other county council members were hesitant to express a strong opinion. All wanted to see a project with full community support, but both city and county representatives feared creating a negative precedent if the city breached either of its contracts with UDOT or with Kimley-Horn.
“I don’t want people to get cold feet when dealing with Grand County and Moab in general,” said County Councilmember Evan Clapper, meaning he didn’t want the two entities to be considered unreliable in agreements.
City Councilmember Kalen Jones, who was on the hotspot brainstorming committee, is currently on the Design Advisory Committee, and continues to support the parking structure project, also pointed out that it may not look fair to other Utah communities who applied for and did not receive hotspot funding, if the Moab area gets the opportunity to essentially re-do their project proposal to the Utah Transportation Commission.
In A Defense of the Structure
In a call with the Moab Sun News, Niehaus laid out her perspective on the structure and Moab’s traffic woes. To citizens who point to the results of the 2018 parking study concluding there was little need for increased parking, she emphasized her belief that the city needs to plan for future parking needs.
“We need to look forward 20 years,” she said, referring to how new technologies like driverless cars could impact traffic and parking patterns.
She posited that much of the parking spaces on Main Street are occupied by business owners and employees, and the parking structure could potentially set aside employee-reserved stalls for those Moabites.
Niehaus also painted a different vision of the parking structure than the eyesore some residents imagine. As far as how the building would impact the viewshed, she said the structure will be required to meet existing city code, which will limit it to 40 feet in height, a similar height to that of the recently built Hoodoo Moab Hotel.
She pointed out that the structure could provide public bathrooms and a place to fill reusable water bottles for tourists. She also expressed a hope that the structure could function as a public meeting space; for example, a place to gather for hot chocolate after the town’s annual electric light parade.
“I’m certainly not a cheerleader for any specific solution,” she said of congestion on Main Street, “but I am in favor of coming up with a multifaceted approach.”
She added that citizens shouldn’t discount the garage in favor of other parking solutions but should embrace all solutions.
City Engineer Chuck Williams presented the progress made on the project so far at the city council workshop on Feb. 18, which took place after the joint city/county meeting.
Williams emphasized that rumors about the price of the structure were overblown. He said that while estimates are preliminary—the design process is only 30% complete—basic construction costs are projected to be between $6.8 and $7.5 million, putting the project on target for it’s allotted $8.3 in funding (including the cost of design) with some possible funds left over to be used for more dispersed parking projects.
Operation and maintenance costs, Williams said, are predicted to be around $100 thousand annually, and would be paid for from revenues generated by the structure itself. Williams ran several models for potential revenue numbers, and estimates that a fee structure of $5 per day would cover the costs. This is a hypothetical scenario; the fee structure for the garage has not been studied in detail.
Williams also said the project should be called a “Transportation Hub” rather than a parking structure or garage, because planners envision it to fill many transportation needs. Bike storage, public art displays, electric vehicle charging stations, and a possible future shuttle stop are all design elements being considered.
Considering a Possible Pivot?
Amid the crowded discussion, one especially contentious point is how much flexibility the community has in spending the hotspot funds and how committed those funds are to the parking structure.
Some opponents of the parking structure, including Grand County Councilmember Curtis Wells, are optimistic that the Utah Transportation Commission would be open to taking a step back and considering one of the other projects proposed by the hotspot brainstorming committee. At the joint meeting, he said he’d had a phone call with Monte Aldridge, deputy director for UDOT in the region containing Moab, and Rick Torgerson, the region director.
“The feedback that I’ve gotten is that it would be shocking if the Transportation Commission denied a request to fund another project, as long as it hit their criteria,” Wells said.
Aldridge himself was also at the meeting, along with local UDOT project manager Ryan Anderson. Their outlook was more measured.
“The $10 million is not an arbitrary number,” said Anderson. “That was arrived at based on conceptual estimates that were done on proposed projects that were taken to the Transportation Commission.”
Aldridge said any proposal to the Transportation Commission for a different project would have to both meet the Hotspot funding criteria and have “good consensus and support,” something he noted was demonstrably a challenge.
However, other community leaders are hesitant to ask the Transportation Commission for a change in plans, fearing that the funding will be revoked, potentially wasting work and money that has already been spent towards the project.
“There was a multiyear process with many decision points along the way to get us to this point and I’m really reluctant to throw it out,” said Councilmember Kalen Jones at the Feb. 11 council meeting.
Jones was on the committee that produced ideas for potential hotspot-funded projects, along with Wells and Hawks.
UDOT’s Anderson, at the same meeting, warned that if the council decided they wanted to scrap the parking structure, any project would have to be re-submitted to the Utah Transportation Committee. There was no guarantee that a new project would be approved, Anderson said, urging the council to instead consider smaller changes to the existing plan for a parking garage.
“Things like number of stalls are something that we’ve already openly discussed in the contract,” Anderson said, giving an example of small changes that have been made without triggering a review by the Transportation Commission. “There’s a big difference between that and reallocating the funds to a different purpose. If we aren’t using the funds for the intended purpose, it would go directly to the Transportation Commission. I don’t want to make that out to be a threat.”
No consensus or agreement has been reached. At the city council’s workshop on Tuesday evening, attendance was far short of a quorum; Derasary, Duncan, Guzman-Newton, and Knuteson-Boyd were all absent. Design Advisory Committee members not on the council joined Niehaus, Jones, and city staff in viewing Williams’ presentation, and asked questions about design, land agreements, and operating costs, carrying on with the parking structure planning.
Future discussions will address whether that planning should take a different track.
Parking structure sparks doubts, accusations at Moab City Council on Feb. 11 – Feb 13, 2020