When I purchased my house I had to deal with more than the usual complications of becoming a new home owner. Because the building had been used as offices by a fairly large law firm it was necessary for me to demonstrate to both the municipality and to utility companies that the property was now in fact a single family home. That along with all of the other usual headaches that come with a move gave me numerous opportunities to see just how wonderfully responsive city government could be and, conversely, just how inefficient, intransigent, and ignorant the corporate culture had become. In the narrative of the last few decades one of the oft repeated mantras is that government needs to work more like a business. In my experience, business needs to learn to run more like government.
In any case I’ve had a chance to experience, once again, just how thoughtful and responsive municipal government could be, at least at the bureaucratic and executive level. The letter I wrote about the Shean Block was read by the mayor, or at least by someone in his office (I did get a nice note from the mayor, but it didn’t reference the content of the letter) and it was passed on to the planning department and I was contacted by, and have had a meaningful correspondence with, the deputy director of that department.
About ten years ago I knew quite a few people in planning, and for good or for ill many of them knew me…at least by sight. That being the case I was not too surprised to find that I wasn’t dealing with antiquated thinking or intransigence. My experience with people in planning is that they love cities and, in Springfield, they care about THIS city (For Springfield that is unusual, I would posit that no city in the world has a disproportionately worse self image and exhibits more self loathing).
That’s why this one particular realization is so painful, and yet so meaningful. In the discussion of the supposed need not just for a parking garage (There is ample space in the middle of the block to build a substantial garage without doing any eminent domain takings, or tearing down any structures), but for a really somewhat massive parking structure at the 100% corner of the downtown I was politely given a history lesson regarding the relative success of two modern class A office buildings which had (and have) massive, connected parking structures, and just how thoroughly other office buildings of all classes had (and have) suffered at their expense.
The truth is that this information wasn’t particularly revelatory to me. I’ve had a keen interest in the downtown and, yes, even its office buildings since I was an adolescent in the 1970’s. I made a (horrible, unfinished) film about just that topic for my Springfield History class at Classical High School for Doc D’Amato. I know that Baystate West, built with the intention of enlivening the downtown, had really acted as a vacuum cleaner sucking the life out of it.
What was amazing to me was that the lesson taken from the aforementioned agreed upon facts was that the city government, and cash from government sources, should go to a new development so that it could do the exact same thing all over again! Again, what is agreed upon is that dozens and dozens of other properties suffered because of a particular competitive advantage gained by ONE development. It doesn’t surprise me at all that a private developer of a new property would want to imitate that success: It is the nature of our economic system for business to try to gain a particular competitive advantage regardless of any externalities. But that a member of the government who not only knows, but MAKES THE CASE, that this particular competitive advantage for one damages the whole, would then still think that government should use both its legal powers and its resources to further this aim shows an unfathomable depth of cognitive dissonance.
It is good for the one, it is bad for the whole. Perhaps it doesn’t make sense for the city to kick in $3 million to help it along. A more reasonable question might be whether the city should simply outlaw parking decks. I will admit that the city’s fundamental economic weakness (partly caused by ignorantly allowing the downtown’s competitive advantages to be eroded by prioritizing parking over people) means that it finds itself believing that it needs to cow tow to developers because (the belief is) we need them more than they need us. I wouldn’t go to the extreme of opposing all on site parking for this development or even of opposing the aforementioned less invasive parking structure. The development is small enough that what cannibalism is certain to occur could be more than balanced out by the reinvigoration of the city’s oldest public park, Court Square.
For the entire downtown to prosper the focus needs to be on the needs of people. Parking should always come last and conform to whatever forms are feasible and locations remain once pedestrians have been fully accommodated.