I’m doing it! I’m talking about downtown parking! One of the most complained about and misunderstood elements of urban design. For Phoenix, parking is more of a perception issue
than an availability one. Any developer in Phoenix will tell you we have some of the highest space per square foot parking requirements around. So how can we make the most of the parking we have available and how can we change the perception that there is no parking downtown?
The solution will come when there is a new perception of downtown parking. Currently, the model for parking as Phoenicians see it comes from their suburban neighborhoods. The vast seas of asphalt in front of the Targets and Safeway’s make for a parking model of convenience and availability that we have deemed normal. This parking model may very well be what the market demand for a suburban shopping center should be. However, in a downtown urban area, the need to park nearest to the door to lessen the amount of time you spend walking through an uncomfortable and hot black top parking lot should be greatly reduced by pleasant walkable streets. People want to leave their car in a safe, well lit, easy accessible spot where they will have peace of mind for the duration of their time downtown. This is what I call “parking culture”. And I would argue that the parking culture in downtown should be very different front the parking culture in the suburbs.
The first step in creating a downtown parking culture is to make sure that the available parking is functioning properly. To do this we could look to the Seven Principles for Parking Solutions by Kent Robinson Ph. D., St. Cloud State University, Minnesota and apply them to downtown.
1. Understand the proper role for parking downtown
2. Strategically Locate Parking Facilities
3. Value the utility of on-street parking
4. Emphasize quality design
5. Make better use of existing spaces
6. Control the total volume of downtown parking spaces
7. Plan for parking comprehensively
For Phoenix we should focus on creating a downtown with an emphasis on a setting that is compact, walkable, and interesting. In-fill development should have safe, clean sidewalks and curbing. Parking accessibility has the potential to set the tone for the rest of the downtown. Parking spaces should be clearly marked so that people can find it through good directional signage and/or way finding system and we should maintain on-street parking as much as possible. On-street parallel & angled parking provide perceived advantages of visibility, accessibility, and safety and should always be incorporated. These spaces should be regulated to prevent parking nesters (e.g. 2-hours to 90 minutes). The increased activity of people going to and from their vehicles activates the street and as we discussed in other posts, people attract people. (See post The Organic City)
When it comes to new construction, there should be a strong emphasize on quality design.
Parking areas should be generously landscaped and well maintained. Parking garages should be well lit and COLORFUL! Garages are great opportunities to add character. They are big and tall and don’t have to adhere to the constraints of an inhabitable building. They should also include visual amenities to help make the transition from driver to pedestrian a positive experience. Parking Culture relies just as much on the public perception as it does the physical construction. Changing the perception of the public, developers, investors, and designers can seem daunting but necessary. For starters we can address some of the common misconceptions around downtown parking.
- All parking must be in front
The truth is that people will park where parking is provided. Traditional downtowns like Phoenix have a grid pattern that often allows for rear lot parking behind the main street businesses. With proper signage and an adjustment in culture we can push the buildings up to the road to provide proper street engagement.
- Finding parking downtown is hard
Connectivity, Are they easily accessible?
Signage Can people find them?
Location Are they located in a safe place?
Walkability and accessibility How direct is the pedestrian path to get to them?
Design and aesthetics Is it a pleasant experience? These are the key questions we should be asking when designing and developing a new project.
- People do not like to walk
Says who? Again, when walking is perceived as something you have to do to get somewhere then absolutely, it feels like a chore. However, when walking becomes the time you listen to a podcast or where you grab your morning coffee or newspaper it becomes an integral part of your day and has actually been linked to stress reduction! When a downtown is clean and well maintained with occupied storefronts, people enjoy the walking experience. That’s why people are heading to “malls” and “Lifestyle” centers.
- Available parking is good parking
Physical improvements must be undertaken in conjunction with economic and quality of life improvements for revitalization efforts in order to succeed. Parking is a component to the overall approach and should promote downtown retail/services. These uninviting garages and pay lots would be better utilized if they maintain the integrity of the urban form. Parking is not a downtown attraction and drivers do not always anticipate the location of the parking facility they will be using. When they arrive downtown, they should feel welcome, safe, and even attracted to their parking options.
- Square footage equals parking requirements
Not always the case. Dividing motorists into groups of customers, visitors, residents, or employees allows the designer to create more appropriate spaces for the needs of that facility. Finally, a huge emphasis could be put on incorporating a shared parking model. Shared parking works best for businesses that operate at different peak times throughout the day. An office building that is open from 8am-5pm during the week, is not utilizing their parking during the same time that a restaurant or night club whose peak operation occur from 6pm-2am on nights and weekends. Having dedicated lots and garages is a waste of resources and a missed opportunity for revenue. Postino’s and other Phoenix restaurants have been utilizing a shared parking model by offering complimentary valets that park your car at a nearby business lot that is not being utilized at that time. Event parking in the city can be costly due to outsourcing to event organizers and staffing or due to the fact that available parking is limited to public garages at a time when most corporate businesses are closed. A shared always open parking policy could be a powerful way to mitigate public perceptions that parking downtown is difficult. Parking can be a sore spot for many people for different reasons. The spaces are costly to build, hard to find, and not available along every block. But those problems are all solvable with good ideas and proper implementation. As Phoenix builds itself into an urban metropolis let’s make sure we don’t over look the importance of perception and design. We need honest estimations of actual parking uses. We also need to utilize on-street parking and our sidewalks so motorists feel welcome to engage the streets. Welcoming signage and reduced restrictions on garages are all way we can modify the way we park downtown.