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Discovery Square build-out could hinge on parking

Discovery Square build-out could hinge on parking

On Thursday, as members of the Destination Medical Center Corporation Board met to discuss upgrades to the city’s transit system, we learned that two new ramps are being proposed in the Discovery Square sub-district.

The first, from Mayo Clinic, would be constructed just to the west of the recently-completed One Discovery Square building. The ramp (not shown in the rendering above) would hold 1,000 cars, according to Jeff Bolton, Mayo’s chief administrative officer, representing a net increase of about 500 spots over existing surface parking.

The second ramp is being proposed by Mortenson, the developer collaborating with Mayo on the build-out of Discovery Square.

Speaking to the DMCC Board, officials from Mortenson said the addition of parking will be critical as they begin to recruit tenants for a second building. That structure, dubbed Two Discovery Square, will be located directly south of the first building, and will be about 50 percent larger.

“We need, in order to start, a long-term solution [for parking],” said David Mortenson, chairman of the Twin Cities-based construction company.

Initially, when plans first surfaced for a second Discovery Square building, Mortenson said the goal was to enter into a lease agreement with Mayo for parking, similar to the arrangement it has now for the One Discovery Square site. That was until a couple of weeks ago when Mayo, already facing a parking deficit of its own, asked Mortenson to look at other options.

“Our view is we either get into a situation where we ask Mayo to provide the rest of the parking for the Discovery Square build-out and stress what’s already a stressed parking situation, or we come up with a clever solution in terms of what we can actually do on-site,” said Mortenson.

As currently proposed, the Mortenson parking structure would go one level down and three levels up. The company said it would be willing to put up the $16-18 million required for the ramp — that is on top of the $45 million it expects to spend on the Two Discovery Square building.

 “We need to build upon the momentum,” Mortenson said of the Discovery Square expansion. “We need to keep pushing. We can’t stop.”

That momentum, driven by the success of the first building, which is now 85 percent leased, could also include plans for a third structure in the sub-district. While still in the early stages, Mortenson said that building, to be located on the southwest part of the campus, could reach 8-12 stories.

The parking ramp, according to the company, would be enough to satisfy the needs of both the second and third Discovery Square buildings.

The revised plans from Mortenson were met with some skepticism from the DMCC board, which has made a commitment to reducing the percentage of single-occupancy vehicles making their way into the downtown.

Mayor Kim Norton, a member of the DMC Corporation Board, admitted she was caught off-guard by Mortenson’s proposal for additional parking. While generally supportive of the company’s efforts, the mayor said she was not ready to make a determination on how to move forward.

“We spent a lot of time talking about not having parking ramps downtown at city council meetings and study sessions over the last year, and we have been working on transit villages so that people can be brought in from afar,” said Norton. “And this is counter to what we have been talking about.”

Transit discussion

The topic of transportation was top of mind earlier in the meeting as the DMCC board heard updates on the city’s plans for a transit circulator.

The recommendation from city and DMC staff is to create a bus rapid transit (BRT) system using two corridors — one to the south, the other to the west.

The corridors would be anchored by two transit villages, a concept that combines park-and-ride features with other amenities, such as retail and park space. Unlike regular city buses, the BRT lines would operate every 10 minutes during peak periods and would use their own designated lanes.

The BRT system has been touted as a more flexible and cost-efficient way of providing mass transit. Officials estimate the capital cost of BRT to be around $100 million, compared to $360-380 million for streetcars.

Either alternative would require the city — using DMC funds — to put up at least 50 percent of the cost, according to Deputy City Administrator Aaron Parrish. The remaining funding would come from the federal government.

In addition to the difference in cost, Parrish said he also anticipates the city would have better luck through the Federal Transit Administration’s Small Starts program, which is for projects valued at $300 million or less.

If the project was to exceed $300 million — like in the case of a fixed rail system — Rochester would have to apply for what’s called a New Starts grant. That would put the Med City up against larger municipalities, like Los Angeles or Chicago, that are proposing billion-dollar transit projects.

“We don’t project to be competitive,” Parrish said of the New Starts funding.

Earlier in the week, the Rochester City Council signaled its support for advancing the BRT application. However, both bodies — the council and the DMCC Board — still need to give the recommendation a final OK.

(The council will vote on the topic in October. The DMCC Board will follow soon after. The board had been scheduled to take action on Thursday; however, there were not enough members present for a quorum.)

The only holdout on the direction being taken by the city seems to be Mayor Norton. The mayor has repeatedly advocated for a rail project.

On Thursday, however, she shied away from bringing up her differences (which we have previously reported on). She later said in an email, “I am not yet on board for BRT, but I am reserving my comments until I talk with the consultants and get my questions answered.”

Regardless of what mode of transportation is chosen, city officials do appear to be on the same track in terms of what routes will be used.

The city is proposing to run the transit lines down Second Street to the Mayo West Lot, and down Broadway to Graham Park/Seneca site.

While the Second Street route has been set in stone for months, the city only recently settled on the southeast route. Parrish said that compared to the other alternative, Third Avenue, the Broadway line would allow for better access to key destinations, such as Soldiers Field and the proposed UMR campus. There were also concerns that building a transit line down Third Avenue would be disruptive to residential neighborhoods.

According to the presentation provided Thursday, construction on a new transit system could begin as early as 2022, with rides beginning in 2025.

DMCC Board Chair R.T. Rybak said while that timetable may be ambitious from a government funding standpoint, it is still two or three years behind the pace at which Rochester needs to act. He suggested taking steps in the interim to improve the transit experience along the corridors.

“We would not have the vehicle we want, we would not have the amenities we want, but we would have traffic patterns and development patterns begin to react to [the transit routes],” said Rybak.

Sean Baker is a Rochester journalist and the founder of Med City Beat.

Cover image courtesy Mortenson

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