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Plan looks to double Common garage size

Consideration is in early stage

The Massachusetts Convention Center Authority plans to explore doubling the size of the garage under the Boston Common, a proposal sure to ignite a debate about cars versus mass transit.

James E. Rooney, executive director of the authority, which owns the garage, said yesterday doubling the current 1,362-space garage could aid downtown development, provide parking for users of a future extension of the Silver Line, and provide new revenue to offset deficits from the state's two convention centers. The garage now produces $5 million in profit to subsidize the centers.

Rooney said the planning process has just begun and no decision has been made about whether the expansion would go forward. "We are not rushing to judgment," he said. "The questions are A, is there demand? And B, does it make sense?"

Boston is one of the most expensive cities in the country to park in . A report last year from Colliers International Property Consultants Inc., a real estate services firm, pegged the city's median daily parking rate at $31, second only to the Midtown and Downtown areas of New York City. With rising demand, Boston garages have recently started charging in 20-minute increments, rather than every 30 minutes, allowing them to capture a full day's rates in less than two hours. The Boston Common garage, which charges $6 for the first hour, is among the best deals in town.

Demand is being pushed by a strengthening economy and a limit on new parking spaces. Long ago, the US Environmental Protection Agency capped the number of parking spaces at Boston's downtown garages and lots at 35,303 to encourage commuters to use mass transportation.

Expanding the garage would be complicated, with approvals needed on city and state levels. Seth Kaplan, a senior attorney for the Conservation Law Foundation, said it would be "extremely difficult" to get approval on the federal parking freeze. He and others were quick to denounce expanding parking under the Common, a Boston icon.

"What kind of signal are you sending by expanding parking downtown?" asked Kaplan. "Should we be spending money for infrastructure that moves people out of their cars or for infrastructure for cars?"

Henry Lee, president of the Friends of the Public Garden, a preservation group that also focuses on Boston Common, called the plan "a terrible idea" that would destroy more than 50 trees. Shirley Kressel, president of the Boston Alliance of Neighborhoods, condemned the idea because it would bring more car traffic.

A city spokeswoman said Mayor Thomas M. Menino had not seen a plan for the expansion but was open to considering it. One city official suggested the city would expect some form of revenue sharing from any expansion.

The Common garage was built in the early 1960s after a long, unsuccessful court battle to stop it.

Discussion of expanding the garage grew out of a recent study by a state commission that concluded Boston could continue to support two convention centers, one in the Back Bay and one on the South Boston waterfront. The garage provides revenue that offsets the losses from the centers, which traditionally lose money but create economic development and visitor dollars.

After a long history of problems -- including the two-year shutdown in the early 1990s for a major renovation -- the Common garage has become a financial winner, returning $5 million a year in income.

Any expansion would occur just south of the current garage on the Boylston Street side of the Common under what are now two youth baseball fields. Rooney estimated that construction would take about two years and could be timed to coincide with the planned expansion of the Silver Line at Charles and Boylston streets. He did not have an estimate for the cost of the expansion.

Rooney said the new parking could serve the substantial new development expected in the Theater District, Chinatown and Park Square. Nearby surface parking lots at Hayward Place, adjacent the Ritz-Carlton, and in the Theater District are expected to disappear if long-delayed developments finally get underway.

"It is intriguing," Rooney said. "But we don't know whether or not we would go forward with it."

Steve Bailey can be reached at bailey@globe.com or at 617-929-2902.


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