Field of Dreams


Field of Dreams

I got into a hassle when I was in New York listening to a urban consultant talk about downtown cores, parking and the "fact" that lack of parking can destroy downtown cores. He actually said that the "if you build it they will come" scenario was tantamount to hogwash. And he was wrong.

Mark Rimmer reminded me of this last week with a note that picked up an article in the Ocala (FL) Star. It was a column written by an old timer that told the back story of many of the events that happen in the fair Florida City. In this edition he was talking about the issues 40 years ago when the first shopping center appeared on the outskirts of town. The businesses were up in arms and asking just what the city government was going to do to protect them. The writer’s learned and sage comment::

"Most of the talk was about various parking options, with everyone under the
impression that adequate, convenient parking would solve all of downtown’s
problems. Nobody seemed to understand that once shoppers got in their cars, they
could go anywhere they pleased to shop. Downtown no long was the only option,
and suburban growth since World War II meant, for most shoppers, that walking to
a central location was no longer convenient."

Well DUH…Folks who lived in the burbs (read that the folks with money) had to get into their cars anyway so why not go were it was convenient and where they got what they wanted. Downtowns had to compete. Not just with acres and acres of free parking, but with cinemas, shops, restaurants and department stores. These shopping centers had band stands where there were concerts, and places to sit outside and have a cuppa and talk to friends. Kids could go there and "hang out" maybe have a pizza and see a movie.

Tell me where the downtowns were. They had empty stores, closes theaters, and crime. Come on, where would the people go.

The tide is changing. People are going back into the central cities. Not because parking is prevalent and free,  but because downtowns have reinvented themselves. They are fun, they are active, clean, and destination locations. Successful downtowns have "scenes" and "draws."  People know they can either join in or simply watch the crowd go by.

I use Santa Monica, California as an example. It had, in the 70s and 80, all the free parking on earth. Six huge parking structures surrounded downtown, and they were empty. Then redevelopment came in and Third Street Promenade was born. Shopkeepers flocked to the area. Trendy bars and restaurants opened. The area around the promenade in all directions boomed. If you go anywhere on the West Side in LA, this is the place.

Parking is no longer free. Often it is jammed. But people still come. They don’t come for the free parking, but for the destination.

Once you are in your car, you can go anywhere. Why not go where its attractive and fun, and that’s seldom a parking structure.


Picture of John Van Horn

John Van Horn

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