Being in a room with people that, in one way or another, want the city to succeed feels great. Seeing, however, that the people who have the money and make the investments not only don’t have any idea what needs to be done, but can’t even understand the most basic underlying concepts involving the creation of a vibrant, and economically successful city when they are explained to them v e r y s l o w l y a n d u s i n g s m a l l w o r d s is dispiriting.
The Urban Land Institute sponsored a little get together for people interested in issues related to cities in the Springfield area. I spoke with business owners, professors, consultants, community activists…and real estate people. From top to bottom everyone was in agreement that prioritizing people over cars was the key to success…except the real estate guys. Tearing down buildings, removing uses to provide more space for car storage was their priority. One man went so far as to brag to me that he was a key part of the process which enabled the tearing down of a house in order to expand a drive through for a Starbucks. His office is in a building, while downtown, belongs in a suburban office park, which is to say that it’s surrounded by a parking lagoon…a parking lagoon which sits 60% to 90% empty every time I’ve gone by but which he insists will be inadequate once a couple hundred more square feet of his complex is occupied. I mentioned that MGM is promising free parking during the day during the week in its garage…his response was to wonder if he could build an airwalk from his office to the garage in order to, you know, avoid the street altogether…you know, ’cause who would want to walk along the street in a city? And people wonder why Springfield has demonstrated a “failure to thrive” even while urban areas are the hottest in terms of economic growth right now.
It comes down to an inability to see the difference between an isolated decision benefiting one development, and creating symbioses among many developments which are mutually beneficial. There is, in fact, (if I might quote myself!) “a general misunderstanding and misguidedness when it comes to parking in urban centers. The general mindset is that cities have suffered in competition with more suburban typologies in areas of commerce because of the ease of ingress and egress which “strip” developments provide to the automobile. While this is true, what is NOT shown by the data is that cities can compete with these developments in this way. No matter how “car centric” or automobile friendly a city center becomes, it can never be as car friendly as the sprawl typologies designed 100% around the car, and what cities end up doing is eviscerating themselves AND the elements of urban centers which hold a competitive advantage over sprawl. Cities compete best by focusing on what they have to offer which sprawl development does not, and putting parking front and center reduces those strengths.”
“Let me be clear: Cities need to provide adequate parking. The core of downtown Springfield already has more than sufficient parking. ( please see “The Myth of Insufficient Downtown Parking” for a photo essay giving visual evidence for this). Of course, every developer, and every development would like to see what parking there is in the downtown be as proximate and convenient to THEIR development as possible, but the health of the downtown as a whole depends on what parking there is being unobtrusive to the people who are USING the downtown.You see, people choose traditional urbanism over sprawl based on what they experience AFTER they get out from behind the wheel and become pedestrians not motorists.”
I understand where “the money people” are coming from. Their fiduciary responsibility is to maximize return for themselves and their investors regardless of any externalities. If their development can be 1% more profitable although it eviscerates and devastates the values of the properties, owned by others, which surround it, they will view that development as successful. It would seem, however, that after seeing Springfield underperform even many other northeastern industrial cities over the last 50 years that a light bulb might flicker on above their heads with the insight that, at the very least, what they’re doing and the way in which they are doing it isn’t bringing in the highest possible returns overall, and therefore the proper strategy might just be to change what they’re doing and the ways in which they are doing it.