The money that subsidizes free parking in downtown garages for visitors is dwindling. And unless your last name is Bass or your parking garage serves Sundance Square interests, you might begin to feel like a jilted lover left standing at the altar.
Money from tax increment financing, or TIF, has been used since 1995 to pay lease agreements with a handful of parking garages. In exchange for this Downtown TIF, the garages offer free parking to downtown visitors.
Last year, five leases were in place to subsidize garages with hundreds of thousands of dollars each. But the money is drying up, and the TIF agreement is set to expire in 2025. Four of the five garages saw their TIF money cut in half. The fifth garage – also the only one not located in Sundance Square –or providing parking for Bass Hall patrons – is in danger of losing about 98 percent of its funding.
The only garage left dangling is at The Tower, the city’s tallest residential building, with several hundred condominiums, 60,000 square feet of retail space, and a storied history. The former Fort Worth National Bank building was remodeled into residential after being heavily damaged by a tornado on March 28, 2000. The building sits between West 4th and West 5th streets adjacent to Sundance Square, the 35-block development with 42 buildings and more than 3 million square feet of retail and office space.
“The TIF is for a large downtown area, not just Sundance Square,” said real estate consultant David Pettit, who represents The Tower’s ownership.
He accused Downtown TIF staff and the board chairperson (and city councilmember) Ann Zadeh of making a unilateral decision to cut funding at The Tower without allowing the TIF board to vote. The decision reeks of favoritism, he said.
“Four of the five leases they’ve renewed have Bass interests,” Pettit said. “Three of them Bass owns, and the fourth one, Bass Hall is the major user of it.”
“Bass,” of course, refers to the wealthy Fort Worth family who redeveloped downtown beginning in the late 1970s.
Garages with parking leases in 2017 include Sundance Square 1, 2, and 3; City Place; and 777, all of which offer free parking after 5 p.m. on weekdays, on weekends, and, in some cases, during weekdays with validation.
“Basically, the TIF is paying for those spaces to be free for evening and weekend parking for the public,” Pettit said.
Zadeh did not respond to an interview request for this article. A city official referred questions to Downtown Fort Worth Inc., the nonprofit group that serves as central liaison for downtown property interests and that manages the TIF.
About $7.5 million remains available to pay for parking leases before the TIF ends, said Matt Beard, director of public improvement district at Downtown Fort Worth Inc. The TIF has generated about $38 million for parking leases since 1995, he added. This year, the TIF has budgeted $1.5 million to subsidize parking, down from $2.5 million in 2016. The budget will drop further to $500,000 beginning in 2019, Beard said.
Lease negotiations are still underway with The Tower, he said in an emailed response to my questions. The numbers being bandied about by Pettit aren’t concrete, Beard said.
“We don’t know what The Tower lease amount would be, if any,” he said. “This is an ongoing negotiation. The TIF received the first response to its counter proposes just [last] week.”
The board has had nothing to vote on yet regarding The Tower since negotiations are still underway, Beard said.
Pettit managed the Downtown TIF in its early days and helped set up 10-year lease agreements with the garages. Later, he became involved in The Tower’s redevelopment. He said the TIF parking subsidies, designed to attract visitors to downtown retail establishments, were supposed to be phased out after the original leases expired. However, Bass Hall patrons and other downtown visitors made it clear they liked the free parking, he said.
City officials created the Downtown TIF more than 20 years ago to promote redevelopment. TIFs subsidize businesses by taking tax money generated from that district and putting it into a fund to promote development specifically within that area. Downtown TIF money was intended for many uses, including historic preservation, environmental remediation, utility work, streetscaping, affordable housing, signage, and, yes, parking garage leases.
A former board member (who asked not to be identified since he is no longer involved in decision making) said enough money has been doled out to downtown parking garages over the years and that the remaining money is better spent elsewhere.
“When the money goes away, which it will soon, they’ll get by just like all the others,” he said.
The Tower had been receiving about $1 million annually, according to Pettit and Beard. The most recent offer, however, was $23,000 a year to provide 300 free daytime parking spaces and 300 nighttime spaces, Pettit said.
“That’s a 98 percent cut in the lease,” he said. “We have not agreed to that.”
The money that is remaining should be distributed fairly and by a majority vote of the board, Pettit said.
“The Tower ownership is seeking a fair and equitable lease consistent with the other four TIF renewals,” he said. “It is arbitrary to make those decisions without the full consent of the board. We’ve talked with a number of different board members and not all of them agree with the staff’s decision.”
The Tower’s parking garage is utilized by customers at Salsa Limon, Cantina Laredo, and its other retail establishments. The first hour of parking is free with validation. Without the lease, Petit said, customers “are not going to be able to park there for free anymore.”
Whether The Tower can get a better offer remains to be seen, but one thing appears certain: The days of free parking downtown are becoming numbered.