Reining in the 800-Pound Gorilla
Parking is the 800-pound gorilla of downtown development. No other issue has the potential to push the buttons of downtown development professionals, business owners, property owners and the public as does parking.
Based on my research and consulting experience with downtowns across the nation, I have developed six key parking principles. A premise that underscores each principle is that, while parking is clearly one important part of downtown development, it should not detract from intrinsic qualities such as a pedestrian-friendly environment and a unique sense of place that make downtown the distinctive destination that people seek. We must never forget that all drivers become pedestrians once they arrive downtown.
Principle 1: Do not overemphasize the importance of parking. This might surprise some readers, but I am convinced that many downtowns focus too much attention on their perceived parking problems. Parking has become both a scapegoat for downtown problems and a potential savior for downtown revitalization. Parking will never, by itself, lead to a revitalized downtown. Nobody has ever traveled downtown merely to take advantage of abundant parking. Parking should be viewed as a supportive tool to help make downtown attractions easier to access. But the attractions bring people downtown, not available parking. Also remember, high demand for parking is indicative of a healthy downtown, so problems are often not a bad thing.
Principle 2: Make better use of existing parking spaces. Before even thinking about adding more spaces, downtowns need to determine current parking inventory (amount, location, usage) and ways to use it more efficiently. Odds are there are plenty of unoccupied spaces even at the busiest times. Increasing public awareness of the location of these spaces should be a high priority. Improved directional signage to parking facilities is one helpful technique, as is publicizing parking locations on websites, brochures, and newspaper advertisements. Some downtowns have encouraged shared parking arrangements -- different users with differing peak parking demand periods can both use the same parking lot or structure.
Principle 3: Appreciate the utility of on-street parking. Despite the fact that 60 to 70 percent of downtown parking -- even in smaller cities -- is found off-street, on-street parking still makes a significant contribution. It is usually the preferred parking location for drivers, because the spots are very visible, as are their ultimate destinations after parking. On-street parking provides a security buffer between moving vehicles and pedestrians on the sidewalk. Moreover, the presence of parked cars along a street slows down traffic, not only making walking safer but also allowing drivers more time to see downtown storefronts. Removing on-street parking to create additional traffic lanes is usually not a wise idea.
Principle 4: Select parking locations carefully. Generally speaking, off-street parking lots and structures should not be located on major downtown commercial streets, in the middle of clusters of storefronts, at peak land value intersections or along primary pedestrian corridors. These locations disrupt continuous pedestrian flow, decreasing the potential volume of pedestrians passing in front of businesses. Moreover, they can reduce densities and render the downtown less "walkable." It is always preferable to place these facilities behind Main Street commercial buildings, along streets with less commercial activity that run parallel or perpendicular to Main Street or at the edges of downtown (in larger downtowns, the latter may require a shuttle service).
Principle 5: Focus on design. Good design can help parking facilities integrate with the downtown fabric and contribute to a sense of place. Lots can include ample landscaping outside to provide an attractive visual buffer and within the lot itself to create an aesthetic appeal at the point of transition from driver to pedestrian. Parking structures can contain storefronts on street-level to avoid an ugly blank wall (known as a dead zone) on the streetscape.
Principle 6: Plan for parking comprehensively. Parking should never be planned for separately but must be placed within its downtown context. Before any new parking facility is constructed, its relationship to and impact on the pedestrian experience; traffic flow; downtown aesthetics and preservation; activity patterns; density; and sense of place should all be carefully examined and planned for comprehensively.
Dr. Kent Robertson, professor of community development at St. Cloud State University (Minnesota), has published more than 25 articles on downtown development and has led numerous downtown workshops for communities and at conferences nationwide. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org