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Parking deck, public participation and a cautionary tale

EDITOR’S NOTE: Part 1 of this piece appeared in the Saturday, July 10, edition of the Daily Mining Gazette.

During the Houghton City Council’s April 14, 2021, meeting, the council approved the Planning Commission’s request to “approve a pre-charrette workshop for a downtown plan with the understanding this could lead to the design of a charrette or other public participation process leading to a downtown vision or plan to complement the city’s master plan.”

(Among urban planners, charrette is used to mean an intensive workshop designed to bring diverse stakeholders together to help develop solutions to complex design problems.)

Although the charge for the resulting June 29 and 30 pre-charrette was to address the downtown area in general and not to focus specifically on the Lakeshore Drive parking area, the impetus for the pre-charrette was the controversy surrounding this area. Tragically, immediately prior to this pre-charette, the June 24 collapse of the Champlain Towers South in Surfside, Florida, provided a cautionary tale for the seriousness and potential urgency of Houghton’s task.

For decades, we’ve heard about America’s crumbling infrastructure, and in its 2021 Report Card, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) gives this infrastructure a C-. Structures sometimes fail, and sometimes there are warning signs.

A 2018 engineering analysis of Surfside, Florida’s Champlain Towers South warned of major structural damage to this 40-year-old steel-and-concrete structure. On June 27, 2021, Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett pledged to release all city documents related to the Towers. Documents released thus far have been posted on the Surfside Town Commission’s website.

Eventually, forensic engineering will provide a more comprehensive analysis of the causes of this structural failure. Currently, however, the known structural concerns about the Towers include cracking of concrete, damaged membranes, water infiltration, and corrosion.

These concerns are similar to those raised in Pierce EngineersMarch 16, 2020, study of Houghton’s 43-year-old Lakeshore Drive parking deck, which includes (among many others) the following observations:

“Elevated deck structural steel framing (beams, girders & columns) have been exposed to chloride laden water resulting in areas of extensive corrosion.”

“Corrosion of columns has generated pack rust, specifically where columns are adjacent to the on grade pavement.”

“Due to the extensive water infiltration and associated freeze / thaw damage we have great concerns of the integrity of the entire north perimeter barrier.”

“Due to the freeze / thaw damage of brick, brick pieces could fall onto people and cars parked below on grade. I directed the City of Houghton to remove cars and prevent pedestrian traffic below until the City initiates a solution to prevent debris from falling to below.”

The Pierce study concludes:

“Typical parking structures in northern climates, if properly designed . . . have a typical service life range of 40-50 years. . . . (in the case of the Lakeshore Drive deck) direct exposure to corrosive de-icing chemicals further reduces the typical service life. . . . Corrosion rates accelerate exponentially over time as a structure ages. . . . From a Life Cycle perspective, the structure has probably reached its useful life.”

The useful life of the deck might be extended with maintenance. However, during a Feb. 12, 2020, public open house on the Lakeshore Drive parking deck, City Manager Eric Waara reported that Houghton’s General Fund subsidizes the Parking Fund with approximately $200,000 yearly for maintenance.

The last large maintenance project on the Lakeshore Drive parking deck, which was performed in 2012-2014, required a $1.3 million contribution from the General Fund to the Parking Fund to cover the cost, which means, for example, that funds from property owners in the neighborhoods are used to subsidize the deck. (See also the city manager’s Jan. 6, 2021, PowerPoint on parking deck costs.)

This cost burden is further complicated by Houghton’s limited property-tax base: tax exemptions include properties owned by the city, the county, the state, the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service, religious institutions, non-profit organizations and, of course, Michigan Tech.

As Yale Professor points out, “the burden of property tax exemption is generally felt at the level where the tax is levied, which commonly includes the local municipality where the exempt institution is located. This means that many small towns with large universities are starved for tax revenue.” (In some communities, this burden is reduced, in part, by Payment In Lieu of Taxes, or PILOT, including payment-in-kind, or PIK.)

Meetings of the City Council, the Planning Commission and the two Planning Commission subcommittees are all open to the public and are announced on the City’s website (https://www.cityofhoughton.com). They are also announced by way of the City’s email list. If you’re a resident of Houghton and want to be included on this list but are not yet on it, contact City Clerk Ann Vollrath https://www.cityofhoughton.com/clerk/.

(Based on my participation in these meetings and on related reading, I’ve shared with the city a detailed analysis of the parking-deck issue. I’d be happy to share the same with anyone else who might be interested. Please see the contact information below.)

Dr. Craig Waddell is a retired Michigan Tech professor whose research focused on risk communication and public participation. He’s also the former president of the West Houghton Neighborhood Association, which worked on parks, walkability, ageing in place and related issues. You can reach him by email at rcraigwaddell@gmail.com.

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