I wrote the essay below in 1997. Despite a few anachronisms, I think it holds up rather well. While I wrote it about Indianapolis, it’s broadly applicable, particularly to small and medium sized cities. I hope you enjoy.
It is almost considered a truism in Indianapolis that one of the biggest obstacles to getting people to come downtown to shop, see the sights, etc. is a lack of free, convenient parking. People driving in from the suburbs are forced to either park on the street, where they will most likely have a bit of a walk to their destination, or have to pay to park in an off street lot or garage. Suburban malls, office parks, etc. all have large free surface parking lots right in front of the door. This provides them with an advantage, and keeps people away from downtown. Right?
In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. The reality of the matter is that parking has virtually nothing to do with whether people do or don’t come downtown. It is a deciding factor at the margin in the worst case.
This is obvious after thinking about it. To paraphrase Denis Leary, I’ve got two words for people who think parking hassles are the reason suburbanites don’t like to come downtown – Broad Ripple. Broad Ripple is a city neighborhood. There are some free off street spaces, but not nearly enough to fulfill the demand on Friday and Saturday nights. I have personally been forced to walk six blocks or more from where I parked my car to the Broad Ripple Ave. strip. Articles containing horror stories about Broad Ripple parking are standard fare in local papers. Yet throngs of people drive from every part of the metro area and beyond to eat, drink, shop and party in Broad Ripple. Parking hassles have not stopped Broad Ripple from becoming a huge success.
Or consider Christmas shopping season at Keystone at the Crossing. Yet another parking nightmare, the day after Thanksgiving and most weekends in December leave many would be shoppers cruising a full lot waiting for a space to free up. This after already enduring the traffic jams on 82nd St., Keystone Ave., and Allisonville Rd. to get there. But again, this does not appear to deter the thousands of people who throng to the North Side mall’s upscale shops and restaurants.
And parking at Broad Ripple and the Fashion Mall is a piece of cake compared to finding a parking spot in places like San Francisco, Chicago, or New York. In those places, there aren’t even any illegal spots available. All the fire hydrants are taken. But people are willing to drive from 50 miles out in the suburbs to dine out in San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood. People from Indianapolis and beyond travel to Chicago to shop Michigan Ave., dine out in Lincoln Park, or take in a touring Broadway show in the Loop, where $15 charges for parking are commonplace and on street parking is a near impossibility. New York is of course the nation’s premier tourist mecca and no one even thinks about trying to park there.
Why is it that all these places (especially our very own Broad Ripple) are so successful despite their lack of parking, yet so many people continue to focus on parking as major problem downtown? The real problem with downtown attractions is not that they are inconvenient to get to or that parking is such a hassle. The problem is that far to many of them are not providing something that people want.
The erstwhile downtown Aryes and Lazarus department stores provide the perfect example. They did not lose customers and close because people had to pay to park. They closed because they abandoned the flagship store concept and had worse stores downtown than they did in the suburbs. Who’s going to drive downtown to shop at Lazarus when there is a better Lazarus closer to home at Castleton Square Mall? Nobody, that’s who. On the other hand, people will drive a long way to get to the state’s only Nordstrom, which is doing a thriving business a block south of where Ayres used to be.
Similarly, the numerous generic bars on South Meridian failed to provide anything people could not get closer to home. They failed because of bad business decisions, not because people had to pay $3 to park. The South Meridian establishments that did provide a unique, desirable product – like the Slippery Noodle Inn and Hollywood Bar and Filmworks – have continued to thrive and even expand.
The Symphony doesn’t have any problems drawing a crowd, nor does the Circle Centre Mall or the Pacers. Interestingly, attendance at Pacer games has increased markedly in recent years. This did not coincide with a reduction in parking rates (or even ticket prices). Instead, the team started winning games. Not surprisingly, that’s when fans started showing up.
The truth is, parking has virtually nothing to do with whether or not people come downtown or not. It is simply an easy scapegoat for people to whine about when answering surveys. The fact is, people who don’t come downtown stay away because there is nothing there they want. Provide these people with real attractions and they will come, regardless of parking. The Circle Centre Mall and its associated upscale restaurants provide the best example of this.
“So what?” you might ask. Paying to park or walking a couple of blocks is surely not a positive thing for downtown. Anything that could be done to help alleviate parking hassles would have to be a positive for downtown.
To a certain extent that is true. I definitely feel that downtown should be as convenient as possible within reason. However, the city has developed a fixation about parking that is unhealthy. Much like a modern day Will Rogers, the city never met the parking lot it didn’t like. This has resulted in a downtown that has an incredible amount of land devoted to surface parking lots. Many of which, unfortunately, were built on the sites of demolished historic buildings. I have never been to a major city that has more downtown surface parking than Indianapolis. (This opinion was also recently offered by a consultant working on a transportation visioning study for the region). And surface parking is a curse on any downtown.
Look at the places that we consider the most thriving parts of downtown such as Illinois St. near Circle Centre, Monument Circle, and “skyscraper row” along Ohio St. These are also the areas the have the least surface parking. The parts of downtown considered the least revitalized – like the area around Market Square Arena and the southeast quadrant of the Mile Square – are also the areas with the greatest amount of land devoted to surface parking.
It is easy to understand this. In reality, a parking lot is a vacant lot. And a vacant lot offers no attractions that tourists or suburbanites will come to see. It offers no office space for people to work in. It offers no place for downtown residents to live.
Unfortunately, the city does not seem believe that we have enough surface parking lots. It continues to require off street spots for every new downtown building. This essentially mandates surface parking lots for smaller projects which cannot support a parking garage on their own. It also ignores the fact many projects, because of the unique urban scale of downtown, might not need parking. For example, small businesses might cater only to neighborhood residents and office workers within walking distance. Some housing might cater to those who do not own cars and use public transportation or walking to get around.
Consider the effect of city rules in the Canal district. Almost every residential and business structure there has private off street parking. Most of this is in the form of large, ugly, suburban style surface lots that consume valuable downtown land. Since these lots are private, those wishing to visit the Canal itself and the USS Indianapolis memorial cannot use them. The net result is that these lots sit empty (and often padlocked shut) on weekends and after business hours, giving area around the Canal a desolate and uninviting aura. During the day, on street parking is rarely ever used. Even at mid-afternoon, Indiana Ave. and Senate Ave. have virtually no cars parked on them. The Canal corridor is also almost completely devoid of retail establishments. Anyone living or working there must either drive or face a long walk to do even the simplest of things such as buy a gallon of milk or eat lunch in a restaurant.
Rather than having each business or residence have a private lot, a better approach is to build large off street garages that multiple buildings (and the general public) can use and to maximize usage of on street parking. This might include allowing parking on West St. during non-rush hour periods, widening St. Clair St. to provide parking on both sides (currently there is no parking at all), and removing the parking meters along Senate Ave.
This approach was taken along Mass Ave. The city narrowed the street to provide only two lanes of traffic and added perpendicular parking on both sides along with landscaping and antique street light replicas that make the street more inviting and pedestrian friendly. The result: numerous storefront businesses cater to the neighbors and visitors and often feature residential units or offices on upper floors. This area still has a way to go before it can be considered at truly thriving urban neighborhood, but it is on the right track. Hopefully the city will allow the vacant lots that remain to be converted from surface parking to better uses. This is the model that should be followed elsewhere downtown.
The best bet for the redevelopment of still hurting sections of downtown is to make sure they are selling something people want to buy – not ensuring that they have a huge parking lot. If we continue building surface parking lots, we will only have succeeded in building downtown replicas of suburban shopping malls, apartment complexes, and office parks which experience has shown (see Lazarus, Aryes, Sports, etc. as mentioned above) people are not willing to go out of their way to visit.
The city should lower the priority given to parking, eliminate or reduce most minimum parking space requirements, and make it more difficult to build surface parking lots. Instead it should concentrate on building a unique urban environment that will draw locals and visitors alike to a thriving downtown full of highly desirable attractions people are willing to walk a couple of blocks to get to.