The city’s first underground parking garage will be expensive—but also bright and cheery.

So promises architect Carl Luckenbach, designer of the structure the Downtown Development Authority will build beneath the current surface lot next to the Ann Arbor District Library. “Underground parking structures have a bad reputation, which I think has been well earned,” says Luckenbach, “because with their low ceilings and dim lighting, so many of them have all the charm of a storm sewer.” Not this one, he says: “We envision higher ceilings, better lighting, higher [quality] finishes, and dedicated pedestrian walks so people aren’t competing with cars when they try to leave.”

Though Mayor John Hieftje has talked for years about putting cars out of sight, this is the first time the city has found the money to do it—and it’s not going to be cheap. The new structure will cost $50 million and will have 485 more spaces than the existing surface lot. That works out to more than $100,000 apiece. In the last major above-ground structure, on Forest, each space cost just $34,000.

The Library Lot structure could have been even bigger, and costlier: council approved—but didn’t fund—a leg extending under Fifth Avenue to the old YMCA site at Fifth and William. The structure also was supposed to link underground to a new Ann Arbor District Library building—until that project was abruptly suspended last December.

Council member Sabre Briere, who represents the First Ward, says she hopes “this will be the last parking structure the city builds” as mass transit reduces the need for parking in the future. But Briere has no doubt the space is needed now. “I can’t tell you how many messages I get from people who can’t find a place to park downtown—and think that it’s council’s fault.”

Fifth Ward Democrat Mike Anglin cast the only vote against the structure—he thinks there’s plenty of parking downtown and hopes the recession will kill the project. “I just hope we don’t get into it and then have to stop because we’ve run out of money.”

“The taxpayers won’t have to pay a thing and neither will the city,” retorts DDA executive director Susan Pollay. “We have a plan in place to pay for the structure by slowly raising parking rates over the next four years–and then users fees will pay off the bonds.” Now 80 cents an hour, rates will jump to $1.20 an hour by 2012.