Lakewood Y: A night for spin-and-grin
A setting Starlu

More thoughts on the downtown Y & downtown parking

The brief mention in Wednesday's BCR of the recommendation by the Durham Y to close Seminary St. to increase parking for the downtown YMCA has become a subject for further discussion over at Barry's and Gary's blogs. This recommendation -- which is tied in with the Lakewood/South Durham recommendations and which hasn't been voted on by the Durham advisory board or brought before the Y's Raleigh board of directors -- is worth some further discussion.

First off, as a starting point: I agree 110% with both Gary and Barry (and all the commentors) that closing Seminary to make more parking for the Y is a non-starter. Right now we have the DAP district at the precipice of a major redevelopment that will add more residential units and pedestrian/bike traffic, with the potential eventually of a Minor League Baseball museum bringing more people, as will the renovated Durham Athletic Park. Suddenly, we want to cut off a minor but useful circulatory path north of the Downtown Loop, and force more auto traffic to the edge of the growing Durham Central Park?

Given the impact on circulation, the only way I'd see this proposal being anything but a non-starter were if the downtown loop were reverted to two-way traffic -- but that's probably 5-10 years away at least.

So why does the Y want to close down the street? The representatives at Tuesday's meeting did mention wanting to add family/youth locker rooms as well as a steam room; if that were to require enlarging the footprint of the building, I can see where they might be concerned -- but only from the perspective of whether the City would give them grief over not having enough on-site parking after the expansion

But the nature of a downtown facility is one that, by its very nature, should not carry a commiserate expectation, be it by the Y, its patrons, or the City, that there will be ample on-site parking for every possible member at every possible time. Is the Y's lot full? Park in the Durham Centre garage. Or on the street. Or the loop. Or by the Marriott and walk.

Really, there are fewer places in Durham where it's less important to have ample parking than a downtown gymnasium in the midst of major roads and structured parking. And it's OK to have to walk two blocks to get to and from your car.

. . .

While this situation doesn't seem one that calls for "more surface parking" right at the YMCA's front door, does that mean parking is an overblown issue downtown, and we have too much parking capacity already?

Hey, I'm a transit fan, and someone who misses hanging out on the T back in Boston, or the Metro in D.C. But I'm also a realist, and I don't think that civic exhortation by itself is enough to get people to change their modes of transport.

For better or for worse, Durham is not today a place where it's very easy to subsist without a car. I'd like to see that change, and I'd like to see development patterns change to denser, more transit-oriented models -- something the TTA tried to push, and hopefully something we'll see out of the STAC process.

It's also going to take, as a commenter noted over at Barry's place, the simple market lever of higher gas prices. Few things seem more likely to incent our car-loving citizenry to make a change in lifestyle than taking a literal toll on car users when they fill up their tank, should gas reach $4/gal., $5/gal., or higher.

But all of these changes portent a possible future, not a certain present. And, for better or worse, the vast majority of (say) YMCA patrons, or library visitors, or downtown office workers are going to be driving in, driving out -- and that's not something that will change for at least ten to fifteen years. Which is why I don't have a problem per se in the City continuing to support parking infrastructure downtown.

Does that mean the current approach to decks is the right one? Not necessarily -- as Gary's advocated before (and as is intended at American Tobacco's east deck), it would be good to see decks integrated with 'wrapper' mixed-use like residential or retail. Such a change provides the necessary parking infrastructure without the aesthetic impact of exposed car-parks as you currently have at the, say, Corcoran deck.

Similarly, as was broadly suggested at this spring's downtown Durham design charettes, one thing we don't need more of is the tried-and-true surface parking lots, a blight on the downtown landscape. Structured parking or other development uses on those lots add to interest in an urban setting and create a feeling of urban corridors and density that create value in a city. (Take a look at Morgan St. now between the Loop and Duke St. with the addition of the West Village parking deck for a good example.)

We're in the midst of a long-awaited, long-suffered downtown revitalization, but we still lack retail storefronts and round-the-clock activity, as the Herald-Sun reminded us in Wednesday's paper. Like it or not, in today's Bull City, parking is a prerequisite to draw the average Durhamite into an area to shop, work or eat -- and by the averages, I'm not talking about those of us who happen to live in Trinity Park or Old North Durham and can quickly bike on down.

Idealism about a future where more people take bus or rail transit to get around Durham is a great thing, and something that deserves continued advocacy. Building in retail and residential around a future transit system, as is planned for Charlotte and likely for the Triangle in some more forward-thinking future, is the first step. Only then can we expect more spillover to more traditional districts like downtown, Ninth Street, and so forth -- and only then can we realistically talk about unraveling today's parking infrastructure.



Kevin - have you ever, and i mean ever, even during the Light Up Durham parade, a Friday evening Bulls game, or the big grand opening of the streetscape project back in June, had a problem finding a parking space more than a block or two from where you're headed downtown? I haven't.

Yeah, most people come to downtown in their cars.

But we have all of these expensive plans, and all of these forward thinking pronouncements, but when it comes to making actual decisions, and spending money on concrete and steel, most of what we're buying is additional parking spaces. And those choices impact and limit our future options.

"The representatives at Tuesday's meeting did mention wanting to add family/youth locker rooms as well as a steam room; if that were to require enlarging the footprint of the building, I can see where they might be concerned -- but only from the perspective of whether the City would give them grief over not having enough on-site parking after the expansion"

That's the problem in a nutshell. Other cities have parking maximums as part of the zoning process. Not Durham. But availability of parking will be at least as strong a factor in deciding whether to walk or take the bus into town as the price of gas. Building more parking, especially surface parking, into the infrastructure now, encourages future construction to take one path rather than another.

By the way, rereading your original post, it's no longer clear to me whether you were suggesting that the Durham Y was hoping to secure the "city's blessing" to close Seminary St., or whether the city had already given its "blessing" to close the street. Do you know which is the case?


I'd like to second the concern over the construction of the massive parking decks. It's now the dominant thing you see on Durham's skyline when arriving from RTP/points east on the Durham Freeway. Almost like Durham is showing its butt to visitors when we should be showing our shining, smiling face.

Michael Bacon

I'm down with increasing parking, but once again, put it ON THE STREET! ( Closing Seminary St. is the complete bass-ackwards way of going about this. Rather than close it, it should be widened, with the on-street parking converted to diagonal parking. (After the city's Public Works department is sufficiently flogged to remove their ban on diagonal on-street parking.)

And the Y worrying about the City giving them grief is either misinformation on the Y's part or someone at the city saying something they shouldn't. The Y is in the Downtown Development Overlay, which very specifically lightens parking requirements for businesses, to keep people from feeling stuck like this.

I'm reminded once more of the comment from the track coach at Carleton, during the construction of the controversial student recreation center on the edge of the campus Arboretum. The coaches, the students, and the Arb directors went around the architects and administrators to talk to each other, and found out they agreed a lot more than disagreed. To wit, they happily moved the parking for the facility a good ways away, to a less sensitive area. At which the track coach quipped, "I don't understand why people can't walk 100 feet to the door where they'll exercise by running three miles." Of course you leave handicap parking close by, but for everyone else, come on.

Kevin Davis

Barry, I think Mike Woodard mentioned this in a comment elsewhere -- but, no, the YMCA was very, very clear in the meeting that they _did not_ have City permission to close Seminary St. As I pointed out, these were task force recommendations that have not been voted on by the Durham advisory board, or put before the YMCA Triangle board of directors.

Barry, I think you and I fundamentally disagree on this point:

"Building more parking, especially surface parking, into the infrastructure now, encourages future construction to take one path rather than another."

So, in other words -- we should restrict building future parking so as to encourage future construction to be more transit-oriented? I suppose we expect that developers and institutions will take this as a signal to say, "A-ha! If I'm going to redevelop, say, a large number of properties, or American Tobacco, I'll just plan to market to tenants who will tell their employees to arrive by bus or bike!"

My guess is that would leave us with a downtown that looked much like downtown did five years ago: without a lot of business, and with plenty of on-street parking due to low demand.

Look, I'm _agreeing_ that expanding the Y's at-front-door parking is a bad idea. But I don't think we can extrapolate from this a downtown-wide view on parking that leads us to just throw our hands up in the air and say, "We don't want to encourage cars, so we won't provide parking." (Incidentally, on a Bulls game night, I park downtown and walk -- because the garages at ATC are usually full! If not for those garages, you'd in today's environment have nowhere to put most attendees' cars in today's car-centric environment.)

There are ways to provide parking in more attractive ways that feel like part of the streetscape -- not alien structures.

Lewis, agreed that it's unfortunate seeing, say, East Deck looming as you drive west on the Durham Freeway into downtown. Eventually, the new county courthouse will block that view. Ironically, the East Deck has a wrapper planned of the form I'm talking about -- but one which doesn't include the Mangum side, which is unfortunate.

I actually like the view near the Duke St. exit where you see the ATC South Deck deck up close; it shows a vibrancy and energy that notes that People Are Really Here.

Michael Bacon

I actually like what the decks have done to the skyline -- it used to be "Backside of Main St. Buildings, across Autopark Moonscape, with Jail." The new deck gives the jail some context, making it look a lot better, IMO, and gives the sense that there's actually an urban core there.


Well, I typically work out at the downtown Y during peak hours (5:30-7:30PM on weeknights) and I successfully park in their lot maybe 40% of the time. More often I park on Foster or Seminary. I don't really see this as a big deal...and find it funny that people who are presumably going to, you know, exercise, would complain about walking an extra hundred feet or so on either end of it. But whatever. People are weird like that.

If the Y wants more parking capacity for peak hours (i.e., the only time they actually might "need" it) why not try to work out a deal with whomever owns the parking lots across Foster (I'm guessing that's Scientific Properties) and Seminary (Durham Centre?), both of which sit nearly if not completely empty after 5pm (when the Y could use the spaces)? Even if they had to pay a nominal fee to let their patrons use those lots, you could rent a hell of a lot of parking for much less than the cost of building it.


The only time I've ever had trouble finding parking downtown, for anything, was for Bulls games pre-ATC - and then, only if I arrived late. There seems to be plenty of parking for the moment, and the large new developments and redevelopments (ATC expansion, West Village, etc) don't seem to be neglecting parking.

Another thing: I think it's true that people arriving somewhere like downtown who might have to walk a few blocks from their parking spot to their destination will be a lot more likely to, a lot less reluctant about it, if they have a comfortable familiarity with the neighborhood they're walking through: that is, they know where they are and what's around them. I wonder how downtown "feels" now to people who don't frequent it.


Kevin - i simply don't see the lack of sufficient parking as problem in Durham, either now or in the foreseeable future. I like Michael's idea of diagonal parking, which increases the number of parking units available in the same physical space.

I think that Durham's current parking requirements are at odds with other "policies" and "plans" that the taxpayers of Durham have paid to develop, but that aren't beingimplemented. I think that if these requirements are extended out into the future, we're going to have conflicts between those (like the JLF) who see "congestion" as our biggest problem and more vehicular capacity for our road system as the solution, and those who see increased reliance on automobiles and lack of walkability and alternatives to cars as the main problem.

Durham actually has an opportunity now, when parking supply exceeds demand, to take policy steps to reduce that demand even further. If we continue to encourage vehicular trips into the city, it will be that much harder, and that much more expensive, to try to change course 15 or 20 years down the road.

Kevin Davis

"Kevin - i simply don't see the lack of sufficient parking as problem in Durham, either now or in the foreseeable future.... If we continue to encourage vehicular trips into the city, it will be that much harder, and that much more expensive, to try to change course 15 or 20 years down the road."

I guess my fundamental point is that any kind of development downtown will, for the foreseeable future, require parking structures.

I come back to a certain extent to the ATC -- there's no way you're going to get several thousand office workers in there each day, today, in 2007, without two parking decks. An idyllic strawman (note: this is not what you're arguing) might say, "Just build it with fewer spaces than normal, and get the businesses that locate there to have their employees use transit."

Only fly in that ointment is, you'd never get the businesses there in the first place. Businesses have to choose where they're going to lease up space, and they're going places where parking exists, like it or not.

What does that leave as an alternative, Barry? Does the City -- which has committed tens of millions of dollars to rebuilding downtown's tax base -- draw a line in the sand and say, "Developers and tenants, tell your employees and customers to take the bus!"

Do we have, this very day, a surplus of parking downtown? Perhaps -- but a 2,800-seat theater opens next year. More to the point, have you seen the plans on Greenfire's web site for the corner of Main and Corcoran? A skyscraper with 225,000 sq. ft. of office space on-site? A few years away, yes, but where do those folks park?

Look how tight parking is at Brightleaf. Any chance of West Village getting redeveloped for office space without the new parking deck going in there?

Should Durham make sure parking requirements for downtown are reasonable and reflect the fact that parking is available off-site at nearby decks and lots? Yes. Should Durham somehow decide that now's the time to throw the brakes on parking decks, if the demand turns up there?

I can't agree with the latter.


i rather suspect that the theater patrons will be able to use that Ambacco parking, since they'll mostly be there during non-office hours (leaving aside the question of whether or not there are enough shows that will draw 2800 viewers).

i don't see cities like Portland, for instance, wrestling with whether or not they have enough parking to accommodate their growth.

this all came up because of a proposal to close an existing street and turn it into a surface lot. that's just bad policy. regarding Brightleaf - that's a private lot, as far as i know. turn the north end of the lot into a pay lot (like the south end) and you'll be amazed at how many empty spaces turn up.

my point is eventually, these are policy choices that are going to have to be made. We can make them now, or we can make them later.

Kevin Davis

Yo, Barry, I think your dogma is starting to run over my car-ma. (Don't worry, folks, I'll be here all week.)

In more seriousness, I think we both agree on this subject -- in the long run. In the short run, I just don't think that it's realistic to put concepts like maximum parking in place in Durham, North Carolina, in 2007.

A quick Google search reveals cities that use the concept: Boston, Portland, Seattle stand out. What do they all have? 1+ million populations, and strong transit systems.

At best, the Triangle is going to draw a regional rail/commuter rail system in the short run; we're a couple of decades away from even being close to the kind of streetcar, BRT, etc. systems that would give Durham something like, say, Portland's MAX system, which I personally love.

But we're just not there yet, and we're not going to be anytime soon. And I for one don't want to see downtown go into mothballs for a couple of decades until we can get there. (Though, hey, it worked great for Asheville.)


Worth mentioning in re the East Deck that it's not just the theater -- you're also looking at ~450,000 sq. ft. of office space, plus 700 apartments and condos eventually built in the area. Add to that a completed north end of American Tobacco, and you've got three full garages.

I would certainly hope that we'll see situations where there are Bulls games and theater events on the same night, too.


Portland, according to 2003 census estimates, had just over half a million people, and a growth rate about 1/3 of Durham's.
Portland data here:

Durham data here:

Boston's population is about the same as Portland's and is actually declining.

Seattle's population is a bit below both Portland and Boston, and is growing at about 15% the rate that Durham is. (1% vs 6%)

As long as we prioritize parking in our actual spending, as opposed to the spending we merely talk about in our planning, we will *never* have a strong transit system. And we are definitely moving into the population range where one is needed.


forgot to include the link to Seattle data:

Michael Bacon


I'm guessing Kevin is using the MSA definition, not the titular city definition. For MSA sizes (which are far more useful in this case than the CSAs -- in this case, using the Durham MSA instead of the Raleigh-Durham CSA), there are tables here:

By the July 2006 estimates, the Durham MSA sits at 464k, while Portland is up at 2.1M. I didn't calculate the growth rates, but based on our diverse geographies, it makes a lot more sense to compare the MSA growth rates. Portland, Seattle, and Boston all are cities that are "built out," so that all growth is either happening through infill or via suburban growth. Durham, on the other hand, is so spatially massive for its population, we still have a lot of greenfield, suburban development happening *inside the city limits*, with plenty of space left for more.

More importantly, though, look down at the bottom of your estimates and see the population per square mile. Portland's is up around 4k, while Durham's is down around 2k. That tells the story as much as anything.


so, basically, more sprawl and more parking until we run out of room, then we have to convert our parking lots to urban infill condos with parking restrictions because the land has become too valuable to allow to be used as parking?

hey, i'll be dead by then anyway.

Michael Bacon

Oh, come on, Barry. Don't be daft -- you know Kevin, I, and others aren't advocating that.

Right now the Durham economy runs on the automobile. It's considerably less auto-centric than it was when I left here the last time in 1994, but that was at the peak of South Square and RTP being the unquestioned epicenters of economic activity. You don't transfer to a pedestrian economy overnight just by plowing up asphalt in surface lots. You have to have a transitory period, where the forces of the old economy are rechanneled to create the new one.

Right now, we have a number of pedestrian-friendly areas, but moving between them without a car is rather difficult. For instance, the malls proper are actually rather pedestrian-friendly, but only internally. Downtown is pedestrian-friendly, but not many people can get there easily without a car. And, of course, you can plow up all the parking lots you want down there, but if there's no businesses, nobody's going to walk there anyway.

That's why I say get rid of the surface lots, and move all parking to either be in decks or on the street. That way, what you encourage is people to drive downtown, park, then get out and do multiple things on foot. Think of if it this way: cars are either consigned to stay within the curb boundaries of the street, or put into a kind of jail or kennel, a.k.a. deck. The goal is that you reduce the tendency for people to make trips of the form drive-park-buy-drive-park-buy-drive-park-buy, and more of the form drive-park-walk-buy-walk-buy-walk-buy. In that way, you create pedestrian traffic without demanding that everyone leave their car at home, take a minimal, infrequent bus downtown or walk through empty post-tobacco wastelands in order to enjoy downtown. But, ideally, you start adding offices, residences, and retail nearby, so that you start getting growth without adding even more parking. Over time, the number of spaces relative to the economic activity drops, and you move from being car-centric with a few pedestrians, to being pedestrian-centric with a few cars.

But all in all, surface lots are still the enemy. Kill them all!

Scott Harmon

Over my dead body will they shut a downtown street, create an even larger megablock, only to horizontally expand a building that already suffers from a terminal case of suburban sprawl. If they need to expand, they can go up, or redo the horrible one story ass view of the building along Morgan Street (that you can't enter, by the way). One of the worst buildings in downtown with regard to urban design, perhaps not quite as bad as the senior center in the way it ignores the urban fabric. They build YMCA's all over the country with multiple floors in dense, urban environments. And for the record...the DDO does not lighten the parking eliminates it. Rather, it penalizes you for offering MORE parking than the minimum parking requirement would be outside the DDO. That's my understanding, at least. Thank God, you could not build a building like the YMCA today in the DDO. Best thing Durham ever did with regard to planning. Figured out how to actually ask for what it wanted, and what it wanted was the right thing for downtown. Goodness...had no idea this was going to turn into such a rant! Your website is so much fun, Kevin! Many thanks.

The comments to this entry are closed.