By Dom Nozzi, AICP
Everyone agrees that most of our downtowns have a parking “problem.” Mostly, we complain that there is too little parking available. Are there any workable strategies to improve the parking situation?
For downtown parking, we should work with the following premises.
1. Downtown Needs a Reasonable Amount of Parking. I am not a utopian. Clearly, in the world we live in, a quality downtown needs auto parking.
2. There is Usually an Overabundance of Parking Downtown. I realize that this is a shock to most people (myself included), but looking closely at the problem and reading about it has drawn me to this astonishing conclusion. For example, an inventory of parking in the typical downtown typically uncovers that there is a vast number of parking spaces consuming a vast amount of downtown real estate. Indeed, in one city I looked at, were there is a constant complaint that there is too little parking downtown, the downtown contains approximately 80 percent of the parking found at the regional shopping mall in the suburbs of that city, and those spaces consume over 20 percent of the downtown acreage. It turns out that it is not so much that there is too little parking, but that there is too little parking within a few feet of the front door of the building a person is going to.
3. The Provision of Parking is Very Expensive for Downtown Businesses. For a small business, purchasing more land for off-street parking than what is needed for the building footprint is extremely expensive – particularly in cities where the land cost is sky high. Typically, land for parking is significantly larger than the land needed for the building. This chases away not only small businesses (which are the lifeblood of a healthy downtown), but also harms the overall downtown economic health.
4. Cities Typically Lack Sufficient Funding for Adequate Downtown Capital Improvements. Not only are most all cities unable to pay for all of the essential downtown capital improvements it needs (more street furniture, new curbs, new landscaping, bulb-outs, etc.), but they are also critically short on the funding needing for operation and maintenance of downtown public facilities and services.
5. Excessive Surface Parking Downtown is Deadly. Most all downtowns provide too much surface parking, thinking that such parking is essential for the survival of downtown. Yet ironically, a significant impediment to the competitive leverage that downtown needs if it is to compete with suburban retail and office clusters is excessive surface parking. That leverage is compact walkability, and surface parking seriously degrades that objective. The loss of compact walkability degrades the health of downtown transit, because healthy transit depends on compact walkability. The downtown residential lifestyle also requires high-quality, compact walkability. Downtown economic health is much stronger when compact walkability is established. Excessive surface parking deadens a downtown, detracts from downtown appearance, character and ambience, and significantly reduces downtown vibrancy. Place-making is nearly impossible when surface parking becomes prominent.
6. Downtown Parking Garages Tend to be Underutilized. One sign of a downtown with excessive parking is a downtown parking garage that tends not to be anywhere near capacity. Many downtowns experience the paradox of a perception that there is “too little parking” in a downtown with empty parking garages.
7. On-Street Parking Downtown Tends to be Un-Priced or Under-Priced. A common mistake made by a downtown is to conclude that an essential way to attract suburban motorists to downtown is to provide free or under-priced on-street parking. But as Donald Shoup points out, this strategy simply leads to the perception that there is no parking available, because under-priced on-street parking typically leaves no on-street parking vacancy. The lack of on-street parking vacancy creates the impression that there is NO parking vacancy anywhere in the downtown, since the off-street parking vacancy tends to be less visible. As a result, underpriced on-street parking is actually more of a future deterrent to suburban motorists than properly priced on-street parking (priced so that there is always some availability of on-street parking). Put another way, free but unavailable parking is less attractive than available, priced parking
What Is To Be Done?
Given the above, it seems reasonable that the following parking program is called for in downtowns with a parking “problem”:
1. Create City-Operated Off-Street and Multi-Story Garage Parking. To the extent possible, downtown parking should only be provided by the city in city-owned, maintained and operated garages and lots. That provision would be in the form of municipal parking garages and lots that all downtown businesses and residences can lease spaces within.
2. Charge a Parking Fee In-Lieu or Parking Impact Fee. Downtown businesses and residences would be obligated to pay a parking in-lieu fee (or a parking impact fee if the downtown does not require parking). Revenue from that fee would go toward capital and Operation & Maintenance (O&M) for municipal parking garages and lots. Downtown businesses would also be able to lease needed spaces within the garages or lots. The expense of the impact fees and the leasing is generally much lower than the cost of land that the business would otherwise need to buy and maintain for their own off-street parking. These fees also tends to be significantly lower than the opportunity cost of foregoing floor area that could otherwise be available for a larger building. In-lieu or impact fees for parking range from $2,000 to $20,000 per space in the cities that use it (EPA, Parking Spaces/Community Places, 2006).
3. Increase the Amount of Metered, On-Street Parking. Create significantly more metered, on-street parking (if there is existing street space) and price the meters to create approximately 15 percent vacancy on an on-going basis, as recommended by Donald Shoup (The High Cost of Free Parking, 2005).
4. Dedicate Downtown Parking Meter Revenue to Downtown. Shoup points out that tactically, it is critical to dedicate revenue from downtown parking meters to capital improvements and O&M that benefit downtown. Not only does that provide a meaningful amount of revenue for a dramatic amount of downtown improvements (which attracts people to downtown), but it builds a vocal political constituency of downtown business owners who come to accept and defend the meters because they can see that the meter revenue is providing substantial downtown improvements.
5. Allow Downtown Businesses to Expand. Once the program described above makes off-street parking less necessary for each downtown business to provide, allow downtown businesses to construct building additions that start consuming off-street parking areas associated with their property. That is, property now used by the business on their site for parking could be put to more productive, revenue-generating, vibrancy-inducing use. Be sure that regulatory obstacles are removed in order to make this business expansion legal. Floor area ratios should be significantly increased (or better yet, removed). Exempt downtown businesses from most or all landscaping requirements. Allow buildings to abut the public right-of-way.
6. Encourage or Require Businesses to Share Parking. Many businesses have different hours of operation. Churches tend to need parking on Sundays. Offices on weekdays. Nightclubs at night. Shared parking and municipal-owned parking allows for a reduction in needed downtown parking, reduces costs for businesses, and promotes “park once” travel. Parking is therefore used and provided more efficiently.
7. Reform Taxation by Establishing a Land-Value Tax. Land value taxation (LVT) is the policy of raising tax revenues by charging each landholder a portion of the value of a site or parcel of land that would exist even if that site had no improvements. It is different from a property tax, which includes the value of buildings and other improvements on the land. The common use of the property tax therefore discourages building improvements or expansions, and encourages the speculative retention or under-use of downtown property (typically by creating a surface parking lot), because development of the property or building improvement of the property financially penalizes the property owner by increasing taxes. While not a pure LVT system, Harrisburg PA has substantially reduced the vacant land found downtown by taxing land at a rate six times higher than improvements on the land. The development of vacant land in Harrisburg has been far in excess of similar cities using conventional property taxation.
Each of these strategies promote an improved urban design, promote a more continuous urban fabric (instead of a downtown pock-marked with gaptooths), promote better economic health, promote a livelier downtown, promote a downtown that is more friendly to residences, promote a safer downtown, promote a downtown with more funds for improvements, and promote an overall more walkable downtown.