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Downtown parking, or, why vacant on-street parking is an urbanist's worry

East_deck For reasons I comprehend perfectly intrinsically, but have trouble putting into words, many of my worries and fears about whether Durham and Raleigh can succeed as real, honest-to-goodness urban areas comes down to one word:

Parking.

Of course, my radio show co-host Barry and I often go back and forth on the question of downtown parking. I note that we're still going to have parking decks in the urban core for some kind, since most people don't live in downtown and will drive to and fro.

Barry argues that it's like building horse stables downtown in the late nineteenth century, and that just as cars supplanted the buggies, he feels transit will (or at least ought to) make today's investment in structured parking obsolescent.

Still, while I accept the need for parking decks, two things worry me relative to our urban future:

To wit, how people park in them -- and how few people seem to look for anything but the familiarity of those structured parking decks.

I work in the American Tobacco Campus downtown, and as someone who enters or exits the decks at least a couple of times per day, there's a clear difference between "regular" work days and those on which (my mythical constructs) Bahama Bob, Wake Forest Wally, and Mebane Mabel come to town for a show or game.

I may be a Southerner born and bred -- from a family whose lineage doesn't veer north of the Mason-Dixon line until I went to Boston for college in '94 -- but my time in DC and Boston have prepared me for certain facts of life about parking decks.

Like the fact that traffic may come at you from two directions, and therefore, those helpful lessons you've learned about staying on your side of the travel lane is a wise idea.

(ATC deck newbies' mistake #1: taking the turns like you would a tight curving on-ramp. Yes, cutting a turn at the line tangential to the curve is the most efficient way to turn. No, you don't want to do so when there are cars traversing that space around a blind turn, coming at you in the opposite direction.)

Or, in the same vein, thinking that parking your Detroit Diesel EXP-12000 hordemobile ("Great visibility! Seats 12! Consumes the provincial oil supply of Newfoundland and Labrador with every fill-up!") at the very end of a row is a good idea, forcing all the other cars to squeeze around you and, to wit, into each others' path.

One may not be used to encountering these sights in the non-urban America, but that "Compact Cars Only" sign isn't a way of trying to discriminate against you for the car you drive -- it ensures safety in places of tight visibility.

Only in my homeland of the South could one exit their office on a Saturday afternoon to find some kind of "Cornhole Games" event in their office complex, a bizarre ritual whose anthropological identity I will not seek to solve, save to note that the sight of tailgating, barbecuing and cigar-smoking in the ATC South Deck was one of the more puzzling moments of my young life.

It only turned hair-raising when I tried to drive out of the deck. Navigating amidst slightly-buzzed men and women as they meander through parking decks? Priceless.

My urbanity fears, to sum up, can best be described thusly:

I'm not worried that we still need parking decks in the Triangle.

I'm worried that they seem to so many like a foreign construct, something to be navigated without, well, any sense of how to navigate them.

Is parking downtown really so alien an idea?

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Apparently, it's not just true in Durham. Raleigh's facing a similar situation, sez ABC 11 news in a story they ran on Wednesday.

The concern? Downtown Raleigh's parking is usually free, but the City of Oaks chooses to charge $7 to park in the decks nearest the city's hotspots like its convention center and theaters.

Fine and well and good, but some drivers are grousing that owners of private surface lots near these destinations are charging even more -- up to $15 for the best spaces, it seems.

Amidst your typical complain-and-respond article, though, comes this bombshell at the story's end (emphasis added):

Local residents and officials alike say take the time to search to parking.

"You should be able to see different deck or even street parking you can find," Harris said. "So just drive around and keep looking and eventually you'll find something that's cheaper or free."

Even city structures just two or three blocks from an event are sometimes considered far enough to be free.

So for a little exercise, patrons can save a whole lot of money.

So let's get this straight. You can park in downtown Raleigh for free for the price of a few blocks' walk -- but people are choosing instead to pay as much as $15 to park closer?

Again, this isn't an anti-Raleigh screed.  The same thing happens in Durham.

Sure, we still need decks to handle the traffic we see during downtown happenings. The ATC's South and North decks are full for theatre events and Bulls games. The Durham Centre deck fills for Carolina Theatre events.

But even though we need those decks, you'd expect the surface options to fill up first, right?

I mean, the parking along the southwest end of the downtown loop, between the railroad bridge and Corcoran, is on-street.

And free.

And often empty.

I've been able to find on-street parking as much as 15 minutes before a show, right along the Loop near the parking lot for Toast and Teaser's. And it's an almost identical distance's walk to the DPAC from near Toast as it is from the South Deck.

Similarly, at night there are almost always free spaces outside the CCB Plaza downtown for Carolina Theatre events. Cut through the Marriott's lobby and you're there.

So why don't people take advantage of these options more?

It very well may be that many of the visitors to the DPAC and DBAP aren't regular downtown Durham visitors, and that they don't know Durham well enough to navigate anywhere except right in the vicinity of their destination. I can accept that.

But I suspect the Carolina draws in a crowd that's more "regulars," Durhamites and Chapel Hillians who probably make trips there a couple of times a year. Still, I never see the CCB Plaza full of cars.

And that's what leads me to ask -- whither our urbanity?

Is it downtown safety -- perception or actual? This may be more the key, given that downtown businesses haven't yet "filled in" corridors enough so that you have a critical mass of pedestrians and eyes on the street at all times.

That said, things are far more lively downtown now than they were when I first came to town nearly five years ago.

Ultimately, navigating a city like Durham or Raleigh isn't a foreign adventure, though. Our city centers should be places we're comfortable driving, and parking, and walking.

Even if walking a few more blocks than we're used to is slightly outside our comfort zone.

So if you're one of those who's a deck-parker, take my advice. Try it on foot one of these days.

Just, for heaven's sake, don't park your big SUV right at the corner.

Photo of the East Deck snagged from my friend Ginny Skalski's blog.

Comments

Jennska

And for all the things you've listed, we are thrilled at our walking proximity to downtown Durham. We're just across 147, so it isn't the most pleasant walk, but we get some exercise and no parking woes. And no worries about having 2 pints with dinner.

Coco Pazzo

But wait, there is hope. At least one enterprising individual in parking starved New York city created a website which listed garages AND their ever changing rates. Now in a city where "In By Nine, Out by Five" can cost less than a brief hour two doors down, such a website is a god-send.

Since I don't have an iPhone or iPod Touch, I don't know if this is now also an App, but some developer should hop on it immediately for parking decks around the country!

Jeni

It's an easy choice for me. If it's just baby and me, we choose the deck. If my husband is with me, we park wherever we find a spot. One simple answer: safety.

I think we're taught as women at a very young age to always make sure we're in plain sight of others, especially at night.

Natalie

That's odd. When it's just baby and me, we go where ever we like however we like. Generally on foot. Through downtown.

G Wolf

"I mean, the parking along the southwest end of the downtown loop, between the railroad bridge and Corcoran, is on-street."


Do you mean such as here:
http://maps.google.com/maps?hl=en&q=&ie=UTF8&hq=&hnear=3112+Annandale+Rd,+Durham,+North+Carolina+27705&ll=35.99572,-78.903176&spn=0,359.993134&t=h&z=18&layer=c&cbll=35.996415,-78.90477&panoid=F_Shf4_XVUk8zJiALIlByg&cbp=12,93.37,,0,4.51

Or do you mean the parking decks here:
http://maps.google.com/maps?hl=en&q=&ie=UTF8&hq=&hnear=3112+Annandale+Rd,+Durham,+North+Carolina+27705&ll=35.996098,-78.904184&spn=0,359.993134&t=h&z=18&layer=c&cbll=35.995525,-78.903164&panoid=Dg0IaO1_X66HDD5I0x0wyw&cbp=12,61.93,,0,-8.71

Greg

Shhhhh...Stop telling people where the free parking is.

Nilsson Schmilsson

"many of my worries and fears about whether Durham and Raleigh can succeed as real, honest-to-goodness urban areas comes down to...parking"

When this becomes a real urban area, we won't need more parking....

Durham is on its way to being awesome, but will be more of a legitimate urban area when the majority of people start living closer to downtown and/or walking around rather than driving. Or at least taking public transportation (which obviously needs to improve here) to get downtown.

But if people here are so used to their cars that they can't part with the driving lifestyle, I say we at least take the ridiculous beginning of downtown (right after east campus...the few blocks with the funeral home, dominoes, paper store, coca-cola building, etc.) and turn a good portion of that into parking lots, since it's an eyesore and unfortunate introduction to our downtown area anyway.

Khalid

Side note: There are some parking decks in Downtown Cleveland that make the E. Chapel Hill St. deck look as sturdy as the Egyptian Pyramids. Crumbling concrete and rusted, exposed rebar...needless to say I don't park there often.

It took a while to break from my Southern mentality of riding around for 15 mins. looking for a free spot. I go ahead and pay for the closest spot especially during the winter.

Justin

Parking garages downtown are fine. They should just be the place you store your car while you're doing lots of different things.

The problem is that most downtown activity is something like:
- drive to parking garage
- walk to game
- walk back to car in garage
- go home

What you really need is a reason to spend a lot of time downtown or do multiple things. I think Durham will get there, we're just not close yet.

Bo H

I'm surprised by the perception that decks are somehow safer than parking on the street. The (unfortunate) reality is that there have been just as many (if not more) security problems at decks; the lack of visibility is an obvious negative difference. Of course I'm just shooting from the hip (anecdotal evidence): would like to see crime stats that confirm or deny...

JG

No Parking = No shopping

barry

"No Parking = No shopping"

Where exactly does one shop downtown?

"I'm surprised by the perception that decks are somehow safer than parking on the street."

So am i. The parking deck is the last place i want to be walking around at 11 pm.

My .02 - as long as we have so many private surface parking lots in the downtown area, their owners should have to pay an excess runoff fee for all of the stormwater we have to deal with as a result. One way to get a credit for this fee would be to allow public parking in your lot after hours. If we've got to have all this impervious surface, at least let's get some use out of it.

Second, why is street parking allowed on some blocks for ballpark events, but banned at other times? It can't be a safety issue, can it? Why allow parking there on some occasions, but not others? Allow street parking on all of these blocks all the time. The idea is to encourage people to be out walking on the streets, not scurrying from the theater to their cars to the freeway.

Matt

Parking is going to be an issue near West Village as the dining/shopping continues to build-out. Residents are already having to find alternatives to the OCF parking lot during evenings that the Westend Winebar has events.

JeffS

Can't say I get over to Durham that often, but I am sooo tired of hearing people in Raleigh complain about the "parking situation" downtown. I have no idea what they're talking about.

Couldn't find the bike valet at SparkCon so we circled around and left them at at the racks in a deck two blocks away. We exit the deck to see... yet another deck on the next block.

Anywhere you go the private lots are charging more than the big decks, or the remote lots with free shuttles, or the free decks two blocks away. I can only assume these are for the people who circle the Wal-Mart parking lot for ten minutes waiting for that perfect spot. Cities should take advantage of this by charging two or three times as much for lots and on-street parking. Call it a laziness tax.

Or better yet, remove the on-street parking and put the public space to better use.

Toby

Unless we're talking about a really BAD area, I always feel safer parking on the street than in a parking garage. Look at it from the perp's perspective: would you rather lurk about waiting for an easy purse-snatching victim next to an open, public right-of way, where a car could appear with only a few seconds' warning? Or would you (the perp) rather be in the relatively hidden confines of a raised concrete structure, where you can watch the stairwells and listen for any approaching vehicles?

Just sayin'

Michael Bacon

I don't find this all that surprising, particularly the parking on the loop. On street parking not only helps pedestrian scale retail, but people tend to use it more when there's things to park in front of. It's hard to find places to park on-street along Main St. on Friday and Saturday nights, but it frankly never occurred to me to go onto the Loop to find parking. Why? Because like most people, I stay the hell away from the Loop if at all possible. (I usually end up on Parrish St., which is well utilized but usually has spaces.)

At the same time, the parking on Blackwell is closed during Bulls games, and during the day, well, it's not like you can park, get out of the car, and walk into something. You have to get around the Great Wall of Ambacco to get into any of the good stuff. It's easier to just park in the deck.

Kevin Farmer

You could always just take the bus. If there's any one thing our bus system seems designed to do, it's to get people to and from downtown.

B

I view the street parking downtown that nobody from out of town coming to the DBAP/DPAC/CT seems to use/know about as our own "residents only zone". And I'm pretty happy with it that way.

Chris

Southerners (and anyone who learned to drive in the 'burbs) just don't know how to parallel park. Parallel parking isn't even part of the road test in some states!

Having grown up in NY - parking on-street is a skill you need to learn if you plan on owning a car. Down here, people seem to get away without ever parallel parking anywhere...even if its guaranteed to save them a few bucks!

Jeni

I should have clarified that I was speaking specifically about when I'm going to the Ball Park.

If I were able to find a spot on the street that was in plain view of people and not a half mile walk, I'd opt for that, but more often then not, that hasn't been the case. So I opt for the ATC parking deck. Sorry but I'm not walking all the way up to Dillard, pushing a stroller in the dark by myself. Maybe I've just had bad timing?

When I go to more central spots, like 5 points, I park on the street. I can always find a spot!

JG

@barry : That's why everybody prefers Southpoint. Parking = Shopping.

For downtown, it also works parking = dining.

JG

@ barry : The idea is to encourage people to be out walking on the streets, not scurrying from the theater to their cars to the freeway.

Suddenly you make Durham as attractive as Paris.

Jameka

@JeffS
the parking situation in Downtown Raleigh is much different than it use to be. The best example - down along all of the side streets around Glenwood South. Those side lots and streets use to be available for parking, however now the street are line with No Parking signs and the small lots are restricted to valet only. You have to get lucky and hope someone leaves one of the few spots directly on Glenwood, walk a good while (not just a few blocks) to find any free parking, or just pay the price. Not cool....

ChiefJoJo

"parking = shopping"

The worst recipe for Downtown Durham, Raleigh, or any other to follow is to try to be like the burbs. We tried that as a formula in the post 1940s and we have projects like the Durham Freeway to thank for it. Folks who like downtowns and urban areas don't like them for the vast moats of surface parking like Southpoint. They like the walkability, the cluster of old brick warehouses and lofts, interesting architecture, cool restaurants and art galleries... you get the picture. Show me a successful urban area, and I'll show you one that charges for parking (on street & decks). This is not because supplying space for cars is inherently bad, but because (based on decades of observation and study) urban areas are most effective when they are built for people first, and cars last.

Downtown Durham will flourish as it once did when the city makes it difficult to build in the suburbs (like the ill-conceived 751 project or even Southpoint itself) and easier to construct thoughtful urban infill projects in and near downtown, while investing in multimodal (transit/bike) solutions to help entice suburban residents to come to town and leave the car behind. As the urban population near downtown and robust transit service increases, the need for parking is reduced. There's a basic guide towards developing a vibrant urban core.

sallie

way late to the party, but my parents pretty much freaked out when we bought a house with no drive way. The where are you going to park mentality is crazy. Um...the street like all the other folks in the neighborhood? Street parking = getting your car broken into in so many folks mind.

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