Can a proper parking program “revitalize” downtown? NO!


Can a proper parking program “revitalize” downtown? NO!

I spoke to a municipal parking manager the other day and he told me that in his community there wasn’t enough parking downtown and the core was dying. They claimed they needed a new parking structure. He did a study and found that there were a lot of unused spaces so he set up a permit program, sold permits to the merchants, moved them to streets away from the downtown core, and voila the downtown started to grow. Revitalization thanks to parking?

I am the last one to take credit away when it is due, but did this relatively simple solution really do the trick? It doesn’t seem reasonable to me.

I am a “if you built it they will come” kind of guy. All the free or even available parking on the planet will not get people to go somewhere if there is no other reason for them to go. Conversely, they will park in the mud and walk through a driving rain to see their team play.

Take Old Pasadena as an example – This was the “skid row” area of Pasadena, CA. No one went there. It was a mess. They began a pay parking program and a couple of years later it was the go to area in Los Angeles. So – parking was responsible for the rebirth. Not really. Parking provided the money. The money provided urban renewal. And suddenly trendy shops and restaurants found a place to locate. THEN people started coming to Old Pasadena.

I don’t know any facts about the situation mentioned above, but things work in tandem. Parking is an important factor, but so is the street scene, or the entertainment factor, or the mix of stores and clubs and restaurants. Can I sit and watch the world go by? Is there a world going by to watch? Are there nooks and crannies where I can be alone, and benches where my friend and I can sit in the sun?

Are the sidewalks broken, the streets dirty? Are the shops inviting, are there a lot of empty stores? Is every other shop a wig store or run by the Salvation Army?

Parking is a factor, an important factor, but not the only factor. A huge garage may with plenty of parking may not be ‘right’ for the neighborhood when there are tons of on street parking that just needs to be managed.

Yes, the parking professional needs to be able to sit at the table with the other merchants and planners but it should not be expected that his or her actions will solve all a communities’ problems.


Picture of John Van Horn

John Van Horn

5 Responses

  1. You are right. It doesn’t matter how much parking you have if there is nothing special about an area. This is how I boil it down: Where parking matters, place does not.

  2. In reality parking is in the same category as roads and power grids, it is essentially a component of the downtown infrastructure. If developed and managed correctly it’s nothing more than something in the background, it’s just taken for granted. When it’s not done right (or “perceived” as that way) then it becomes headline news and is looked upon as a deadly virus that is going to ultimately kill a downtown, same thing that happens when you have serious congestion because demand exceeds a major roadway’s capacity.
    It’s also a matter of priority. As you pointed out people have no problem parking in mud and trudging a half mile to go to a football game or concert, but when you’re talking about lunch there is a different perception of where parking should be located. The higher the “desire” for the ultimate destination the lower the priority on the parking issue, but the parking still needs to “work”.
    Think about the most popular restaurant in town, people will wait in line for an hour to get a table and still be excited to be there. Not only that, they’ll go back the next chance they get and wait in line again. Take that same restaurant and make them have to drive around for more than a few minutes looking for a parking lot or garage, and then make them wait in a line for more than a minute or so to exit at the end of the evening and the entire experience turns into a disaster.
    Parking can make or break a downtown (or anywhere), but we really only seem to get noticed (in the big picture sense) when we’re associated with the “break” side of things.

  3. I think that the change in parking strategy directly helped this town. Here is a different way to look at it. This town already had the popular shops, but the parking strategy was wrong. They were hurting themselves. Imagine if Old Pasadena was revitalized without the parking revenue, but by investors, but the parking policy never changed and it was still free and cars never moved. Do you think it would work? No, because people have no access to the shops. If your streets are empty, it is highly unlikely that the parking policy has anything to do with that since the stores are not creating customer demand. On the other hand, if the streets are filled the parking policy has a direct effect on the survival of a downtown, and it could be stopping its growth. Sometimes “you’re gonna need a bigger boat” to handle the demand. Towns do make mistakes and build garages when a simple change in policy would fix the issues. Parking will not solve the issue of crappy stores not having customers, but it can definitely hurt and stop popular stores from growing.
    The popular restaurants, bars, and retailers in a given town have the least to gain from parking policies because people are willing to go through a bit more hassle to get their product. But what about the dry cleaner, the ice cream shop or hardware store who rely on a large volume of small purchases . These stores have the most to gain from good parking policies and the most to lose on bad policies. Here is an example. There is a Philly pretzel place that is located in the heart of my town. It sits on the busiest block and parking is tough to find given the current policies in place. I love these pretzels, and when I drive by, if and only if there is a spot on the street, I will stop and buy a $.50 pretzel. I have tracked how many times I wanted to stop to how many times I found an open space. 2 out 53 is my current number over 2 years. That shop has lost 51 sales because of the lack of parking. I have never not gone to the restaurant I chose because of lack of parking, I will parking in a garage if needed for that, but I will not park in a garage for a pretzel, it’s just not worth it to me. How many times have the kids been in the back seat and said “mom, I want a pretzel/ice cream cone” to which the mom says” ok, if we can find a spot”…the chances of finding a spot are about 4% given my data. Those are not good odds for the business owner.
    The issue is that the large/popular restaurant has a bigger voice in the town then the little pretzel shop. I have been working on a major policy change for 2 years now based on the premise that people will be still go to the restaurant when we change from free parking on the street to paid after 6pm( after 6 is currently free). The little shops who have quick sales will benefit the most from this. We have had 3 stores fail in the downtown core who have moved to other parts of the town and have been successful. What changed? The availability of parking. The goal is to make the parking extremely convenient to the “grab and go” stores and just a little bit less convenient, but not so much of a hassle that they will stop coming, to the more restaurants/movie heater/playhouse. Basically, for entertainment people will go through some hassle. The cost/benefit is greater for a concert then it is for a pretzel. We have designed our policies around the wrong assumptions for many years.
    I agree that Old Pasadena does not fit this model , and this is one of the issues I have with the Shoupistas. Shoups model is awesome, in the right situation. When I used his model in a presentation someone asked me if I was planning on creating a parking district fund where the revenue generated would go back into the zone, like Shoup Dog suggests. I said no. The reason is because the Borough already spends a higher proportion of tax revenues on the downtown. I pay the Downtown Improvement District’s assessments even though I am tax exempt and are not required. I wish Shoup would update his model to reflect smaller town issues. The parking district is great in a big city. Let the money that is generated in certain districts stay there instead of going to the city’s general fund. But when the town IS the entire district, it makes no sense to create a special fund since most of the tax revenue is already spent there.

  4. Charlie — that is exactly my point — it takes more than just a change in parking policy to revitalize a downtown area. Sure, it must be there, but that change alone won’t do it.
    As for the parking district issue, I don’t really understand. Are you saying that in your town all money goes into the general fund and then is redistributed out, some to fire, some to police, and some to the downtown? And we are not talking about tax revenue. We are talking about the revenue generated from parking. Why should that revenue be placed in the general fund to pay for the new wing on the city hall, or for the library? Why shouldn’t it be allocated specifically for the broken sidewalks, new street lights and other like items? You don’t need to set up a “district” to do that, simply ensure that the money is properly allocated. The reason is that with proper promotion, the populace will begin to understand that parking fees go to provide services related to parking and its surrounding area, not to the general use of politicians. Large city or small, it still works. JVH

  5. I agree, it can’t revitalize, but it can stop growth in its tracks, and very fast. We have to be more proactive as an industry and not reactive. But being proactive involves risks, you have to put your neck out a little, and in political worlds you show your neck and its likely your head will get chopped off!
    We have an improvement district to which all property owners pay an assessment. Additional ,from what the local government already provides, concerts, street fairs, security, clean teams are all paid for by this. The parking garages sit in this district, but we are not required to contribute, but we do. $100,000 a year.
    We spend upwards of 65% of all general fund expenses in the downtown, but the downtown only contributes 30% of the general fund revenue. So in my mind they are already getting the bulk of the benefits. In essence, we already spend the more than the parking generates on the DT for the “benefit” of the DT. This is above and beyond street repair. Its cosmetic upgrades, concerts, extra police services because of the student bar crowds, sidewalk repairs..etc My point is, we do it anyways, why create more paperwork and accounting. Leaner government!
    Now in LA, Old Pasadena may not get all of these services from the LA general fund. More demand means more people, more trash, more police needed….will LA increase this services from the GF, maybe, but most likely not across the board and to an acceptable level. So you keep the parking revenue in the district and use it to upgrade services. In a small community, the district IS the entire downtown, and most likely gets more benefits($$$$) then they generate. The money is being spent there, just not in a separate fund. It’s a good PR move, but it may not be all its cracked up to be in a small town.

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