For now, “free” parking in Bloomington’s new 4th Street garage, due to computer chip shortage

Bloomington’s new 4th Street parking garage opened for use three weeks ago on Monday, Aug. 23.

The opening was announced in a release issued by the mayor’s office the previous week.  It means the city hit its hoped-for opening date of August 2021.

The city has sold 370 monthly permits for the garage. Hourly parking will eventually be charged at 50 cents an hour.

But for now, it’s possible for visitors to downtown Bloomington to park without paying for a space in the new 4th Street garage.

That’s not because the city has adopted a philanthropic approach to parking garages. It’s due to a worldwide supply chain problem, according to the mayor’s office. The metering of time spent in the garage, as well as the customer service portal, run on technology that requires a computer chip from China, where it’s being manufactured.

As soon as the equipment arrives and is installed, the gates will go down, and daily parkers will start getting charged, according to the mayor’s office.

Despite the “free” parking at the garage, which is being paid for out of an $18.5 million bond issuance, midday usage looks light so far.  Based on just a couple of manual counts by The B Square, cars have been parked in about 17 percent of the roughly 540 spaces.

The city has not yet held a formal ribbon cutting or made aggressive efforts to promote the availability of parking there. The garage in many ways still looks a bit unfinished.

The still offline system for charging parking fees is inconspicuous compared to several more visible signs of unfinished work on the garage. According to the mayor’s office, manufacturing delays and labor shortages are at least partly to blame for the unfinished work.

A lane of Walnut Street on the east side of the garage remains closed to traffic. Solar panels and electric vehicle charging stations have not yet been installed. Ground floor spaces for some parking division offices, and public bathrooms are also not yet complete. Some final details on bike lockers also still need to be worked out, according to the mayor’s office.

A piece of public art made up of nearly 9,000 aluminum panels will also eventually be installed across the parking garage facade. The title of the work is “Urban Fabric” by Project One Studio, with fabrication by Ignition Arts, according to the city’s late August news release.

According to the mayor’s office, the solar panels are hoped to be installed later in September. The artwork could be done by the end of October.

One potential element will not be installed at the Fourth Street garage anytime soon: a sign indicating how many parking spaces are still available in the garage.

Responding to an emailed B Square question, the mayor’s office wrote: “The parking count sign was not included in the original project bid and there are no current plans to purchase or install one.”

The same question about a parking count sign was asked by city councilmember Steve Volan during the late August budget hearing for the economic and sustainability department (ESD). At the budget hearing, ESD director Alex Crowley told Volan he’d have to check on the answer.

Questions about parking count signs for the Fourth Street garage aren’t new. The B Square asked about such a device for the Fourth Street parking garage in October 2020, at a meeting of Bloomington’s redevelopment commission (RDC). At that point, it sounded like a parking count sign could still be a part of the mix.

It’s the RDC that oversees the tax increment finance (TIF) revenue, which the city is tapping to pay for the new garage at Fourth Street.

The new garage at Fourth Street is actually a replacement structure for the one that was deemed structurally unsound, closed at the end of 2018 and demolished.

Of the roughly 540 spaces that have been built in the 4th Street garage, 352 count as replacements for the spaces that were housed in the previous 4th Street structure.

At the Thursday, Sept. 26 city council hearing on the public works budget, four days after the 4th Street parking garage opened, councilmember Volan was keen to know what the usage for garage looked like up to then. Here’s how the exchange unfolded between Volan and public works director Adam Wason. (Ryan Daly is the city’s parking garage manager.)

Steve Volan: Let me actually ask first: How is occupancy in the new Fourth Street garage this week?
Adam Wason: It just opened on Monday.
SV: Is there any preliminary number? Mr. [Ryan] ]Daly is on the call, it’d be…
AW: …Actually, Ryan, I’m going to handle that one. It’s way too soon to tell. We’ve had, you know, a couple dozen cars in there at a time. But we literally just opened the facility on Monday. So I don’t think any data points on the Fourth Street garage are relevant at this point.
SV: I would respectfully disagree with you. You know, if for no other reason than that, it’s nice, it would be nice to know, how the local economy is changing, like if the garage is full? Or if it’s empty? I’d be curious to know.
AW: I think absolutely, I don’t disagree with that. But I think, you know, four days into its operation, isn’t the time to start comparing data points.
SV: With all due respect, Mr. Wason, this garage was the subject of a great deal of debate, OK? And, you know, I think it’s actually quite relevant.
AW: And like you said, we can agree to disagree on that. We’re four days into its operation.

Based on B Square manual counts, here’s a sampling of usage at the 4th Street garage so far:

Sept. 10 at 11:18 count: 96
Sept. 11 at 14:46 count: 46
Sept. 13 at 13:35 count: 93

According to the mayor’s office, a dedication ceremony for the parking structure will take place when the art and additional components are complete.

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