Parking as an ‘economic development & urban design tool’ in small town USA
A discussion about parking
As promised, here is the audio recording of the discussion I recently had with Traverse City’s city planner, Russ Soyring (left) and Rob Bacigalupi, deputy director of the Downtown Development Authority. It runs about 40 minutes and I offered it as a way for them to tell their side of the development story after I ran a few posts rants while the opening of the Old Town Parking Deck was being celebrated.
We met in the conference room of Rob’s DDA office, located inside of the Larry C. Hardy Parking Deck on State St. Originally, I was to meet with Bacigalupi, but he invited Soyring along to broaden the discussion. The two are teaming up to present to the Michigan Association of Planning on the topic of ‘parking as an economic development and urban design tool.’
They used me as their guinea pig… wheeek…wheeek.
Play: Parking in the City
A discussion with Russ Soyring and Rob Bacigalupi. (download the .mp3)
A Selective Recap: Tied to Parking
In the discussion, the two planners introduce how the planning process is tightly tied to economic development (focused on growth) which, at least for the DDA, appears to be the primary concern. They rightly acknowledge the success over the past 15 years of developing the downtown and how the DDA’s Tax Increment Financing (TIF) & Development Plan includes walkability as one of its missions.
The mission, Enhance the pedestrian experience calls for street furniture, pedestrian bridges over the Boardman, a tunnel under Grandview, eliminating the ‘experience of walking by parking lots’ and other enhancements. The other three missions are: Protect downtown’s small town character, Make better use of the land, and Maintain historic buildings. This is largely accomplished by capturing tax dollars generated through new development before the money goes to the city’s general fund. TIF money.
Stacking the Cars
Part of the plan calls for replacing surface lots with parking decks. They both discussed successes they’ve had in turning parking lots into development and where they’ve had difficulties. It’s been particularly difficult to free up some earlier parking into more ‘public space’, which I infer as public space, not private retail and office space, which the DDA has increased.
For the most part the DDA, which runs the city’s parking system, provides inexpensive and abundant parking. Attempts to try to limit parking meet with a varied, but strong-willed opposition. The main constraint, something both of them repeatedly acknowledged, to progressive parking policy is the financial and real estate system that requires parking, as well as the cultural reality of a public that demands abundant, free or inexpensive parking.
Soyring, as city planner, has real questions about a system that requires parking when it’s obvious that most businesses would put it in regardless. In fact, he describes how developers already put in more parking than required or even needed. He offered that a parking lot might just be seen as away to avoid landscaping.
As he explained the question, “There’s a great demand for parking, so I often wonder why we even have parking requirements. Why does government even have parking?“
At its best, a city uses parking regulation to counter the large impact single occupant vehicles have on a city. For example, downtown Traverse City actually doesn’t allow new developments to have private parking, unless it’s in a structure or is residential. As Soyring pointed out, it is simply a more efficient land-use model to have cars share space. Another example is maximum parking requirements, set below peak needs, implemented in other cities.
Bacigalupi echoed the systematic pressures when talking about new developments.
“Unfortunately, the first question that comes up when a project is proposed is, ‘where’s the parking?’,” he said.
As a result, he sees one of the best choices for the downtown is building parking decks to remove surface lots and, “free up land for more development.”
He commented, “A lot of surface parking spaces have gone away and have been organized into this parking structure (Hardy Parking Deck) and that freed up land for Radio Center 1 & Radio Center 2, which include office and retail development.”
Parking drives development
Since 1997, 800,000 additional square feet of office and retail space was created within the DDA district. Bacigalupi explained how this, and more development to come, will lead to a more walkable community.
“It’s part of an economic strategy to add more activity, whether it’s jobs, places to shop or places to live. That, actually, ultimately, promotes different modes of transportation. Transit doesn’t work in low density and the more density you have the more successful transit can be,” he said, while pointing out that he personally serves on BATA’s board of directors. “That is the long-term goal,” he added.
Soyring used Portland, OR as a model to describe the relationship between parking availability and wider transit use, as well as increased numbers of active transportation users. Portland invested heavily in transit, even making it free or almost free, yet people who could easily take transit still drove. It came down to availability of parking at very inexpensive rates. They reduced parking and raised rates, and multi-modal use rose.
The same principle will apply to Traverse City. “If we have the best small town transit authority in the country we will still have just a few people getting on that bus,” Soyring said. He added that until we make parking “a little more difficult, a little more expensive” improvements to our transit system will have limited impact.
In addition, what needs to happen simultaneously, are community values from studies like the Grand Vision to move forward into tangible zoning and planning tools that allow for land uses that favor more modes of travel.
Cars Over People
We didn’t address at length the impact centralized development – that now accommodates abundant car parking – has on the greater network throughout the city. Our density has so far been contained within the DDA district, which is great for our downtown, but not so great if you happen to live near one of the arterials that act like car-cannons into the city. The reality is that it’s easier to develop a dense, walkable downtown than it is to carry out bold strategies for the city’s periphery. The TIF system really assists that process. It’s clear that both Soyring and Bacigalupi recognize the lack of over-all strategy, but didn’t offer much, in this session, to solve the issue.
Soyring, in particular, recognizes the disconnect and, in his role as the city planner, often comes up against it.
“We have more care about how we’re going to store our cars than about how some of our people are going to live,” he said. He continued, “It just shows you how important it is in people’s minds that we have to have a place to store our automobile and if you don’t have a place, then ‘how can we be successful with anything in life?‘ ”
“It’s really perverted, actually,“ he added.
I walked away with a better understanding of the challenges they both face. I also have a better understanding of what issues we, as residents of Traverse City, need to raise when we are asked to support more parking. I think it’s a stretch to say that we don’t subsidize it, even with the use of captured development dollars and metered fees. There remains several locations in the city, even near to downtown, where parking is ‘free’ to the user. Some of those places, like parking on the bayfront, as mentioned by Bacigalupi, are on prime real estate . We also pay in opportunity costs when development is funded by a single funding model that favors one mode of transportation over place-making of the entire city.
Love the decks or hate them, building them ties us to maintaining and building infrastructure to serve them for decades.
This was a good start to the discussion. We will return to those questions, and perhaps pieces from this interview, in the coming weeks and months.
- Winning Downtowns Stack Their Decks (MLUI-article referenced in interview)
- Parking Space Economics (outsidethebeltway.com)
- How Portland Sold Its Banks on Walkable Development (streetsblog.org)
- Nimble Cities: Can eliminating parking spots make cities more efficient? (slate.com)
- Mid-sized cities make progress in revitalizing downtowns (theglobeandmail.com)