FORT WORTH — Drivers coming downtown to have dinner or take in a show at Bass Hall will continue to have access to free parking on nights and weekends for the time being at two big downtown garages.But a temporary extension of leases for subsidized parking spaces came with a warning that free parking will not last forever.The Downtown Tax Increment Finance District board voted Thursday to extend a lease for 90 days with City Center Development L.P. for 1,200 parking spaces in garages at 215 Commerce St. and 400 Jones St. for $4,618 a month. It also extended a lease for 60 days with Cousins Properties, owners of the garage at 777 Main St., for 700 spaces for Bass Hall patrons with a ticket, at a cost of $31,905 a month. The amounts are based on current monthly rents.The leases were set to expire Monday. Under a TIF, property taxes from new development are funneled into a special fund to pay for improvements inside a defined district. Councilwoman Ann Zadeh told a crowded city conference room that the downtown TIF will expire and that permanent leases are not possible. The downtown TIF, which raised its lifetime cap to $100 million in taxes in April 2013 to work on economic development projects downtown, stops collecting money in 2023 and expires in 2025.“We won’t be having money once the TIF comes to an end,” Zadeh said. “No one on this board is looking to hurt downtown or do anything that would damage downtown. It’s our duty to look at the funds that we have available, which are taxpayer dollars, and make sure they are spent in an appropriate way.”The TIF board has said that if the leases are renewed, they will come at a lower cost. It can also choose not to renew them. A year ago, it renewed its lease with Tarrant County for free parking at its garage at the Family Law Center for $100 a space, or $25,000 annually plus some operating costs, down from $400,000 under the previous lease. If either of the expiring leases at the two garages is renewed for better terms than what the county gets, the TIF would have to offer those terms to the county. The TIF has parking leases at three other garages that will expire in 2016 and 2018.Josh Pirtle, vice president of asset management with Cousins Properties, said after the meeting that the owners are willing to negotiate a new lease and offer free parking but aren’t likely to take a price as low as what Tarrant County accepted.“We are willing to open the garage to the general public,” Pirtle said.Several people spoke in favor of renewing the leases, saying they play a huge role in attracting people downtown.“Free parking ensures the accessibility of downtown to all groups of people, visitors and all sorts of people who can’t afford to park, ” said Lynda Bertran, who lives in the Arlington Heights neighborhood. David Ahearn, co-founder of the Four Day Weekend comedy troupe, said free parking sets downtown Fort Worth apart from downtown Dallas.“That’s what makes this city better,” Ahearn said. “If we take away free parking, not to mention the economic effects it will have, I honestly believe our numbers at our theater will go down dramatically.”Performing Arts Fort Worth estimates that 40,470 vehicles parked in the 777 Main St. garage during its 2013-14 season at Bass Hall, up from 37,650 in 2012-13.Sundance Square said that in 2013, it parked 254,681 cars in one of the City Center garages under the lease, according to figures provided by the TIF.“A decision by this board that would effectively transition garages to paid parking would serve as a detriment in our efforts to engage new audiences with the performing arts,” said Dione Kennedy, president and CEO of Performing Arts Fort Worth, which owns and operates Bass Hall.Bill Thornton, president and CEO of the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce, told the board that his organization does not have an official position on the parking issue, but he encouraged “prudent action.”The TIF has about $30 million to spend, but about $29 million has been loosely committed to more residential projects; a science, technology, engineering and math school downtown; and other infrastructure, among other work. None of that was earmarked for expiring parking leases.Jim Johnson, director of the downtown TIF, said offering the parking leases 15 years ago was the right tool to spur downtown development but questioned whether they are still needed.
Sandra Baker, 817-390-7727 Twitter: @SandraBakerFWST