February 5, 2006

Parking, Traffic and Other Downtown Revitalization Issues

I received some private comments back after a posting about the need for Framingham to decide what it wants its downtown to become, before expecting an effective "revitalization." Along with the need to reduce crime and the perception of crime, a lot of talk had to do with traffic and parking. I agree completely with comments that parking lots themselves to feel not only safe but welcoming, and that the walk from the parking lot to main commercial areas must be attractive, appealing and inviting. That is critically important for drawing people to a central business district. However, I don't think slow traffic flow is the show-stopper many others do.

A downtown can't compete with a shopping mall for massive amounts of parking, and it would be foolish to try. Where a downtown can excel is "sense of place" -- a feeling that you're someplace specific and special, with interesting local businesses and the feel of an actual community, as opposed to a mall that could be in Natick or Nashua or North Dakota.

How much parking downtown needs depends in very large part on the vision for downtown, which gets back to my initial posting on the subject. You can't "solve the parking problem" (assuming there is one) if you don't know your downtown's identity.

If you envision a compact downtown with a lot of new housing nearby and an attractive streetscape that encourages nearby residents to walk to the business district, with downtown primarily serving people living in nearby precincts, you will need less parking than if you want to create a regional center that draws people regularly from across Framingham and surrounding communities.

The mix of businesses is also important. If part of your downtown has a mix like Waltham's cinema and restaurant row, where peak parking demands are on Friday and Saturday nights, and another part of the mix is office where peak demand is during the day, you'll need less parking than if all your businesses have peak demand at the same time.

Do you expect people to come and stay 30 minutes or less, running quick errands such as buying bakery products or dropping off dry cleaning? An hour? Three or more hours? Will they be likely carrying large, heavy packages or carrying nothing? Are they likely going to go to just one place or several? These things all factor into how far people are willing to park from their destinations.

You can't determine parking needs without knowing what your downtown patrons are going to be doing.

I disagree the traffic problem must be solved before downtown revitalization is possible. What if we gave commuters an incredibly attractive streetscape that compelled them to stop into the local shops as they walked from the train to their cars? They're already here.

What if there was a grocery store across from the train station that was attractive at the sidewalk and appealing to walk to? Wouldn't some people stop and do their shopping on their way home?

What if there was a cafe with outdoor seating and a pretty streetscape right next to the station? Wouldn't some people think about stopping for coffee on a nice summer day to let the traffic die down before heading home?

What if we tried to attract more businesses downtown that had peak demand when traffic was lighter? Saturday and Sunday nights are a lot better than weekday rush hours.

Places from Harvard Square to midtown Manhattan are perpetual business-day traffic snarls, yet commercial neighborhoods thrive. Now granted, they also have good public transit so people can get there without driving. But judging from the streets there, plenty of people still do take their cars.

I see the problem in downtown Framingham as too much THROUGH traffic getting stuck there - traffic that has no interest in stopping in the downtown business district, but is just trying to pass through. Any attempts to reroute that traffic should also make sure to leave a local ground-level street network intact. What we don't want to do is design a solution solely with the needs of through traffic in mind. That can turns the main commercial streets of a downtown into what some planners justly, derisively call "traffic sewers" -- multilane thoroughfares that have cars whizzing through, but kill off the surrounding streetscape.

No, you never want cars stuck idling for 15, 20 minutes or more without being able to move. But slow traffic in small stretches of roadway in the heart of a business district -- as long as it still moves -- can actually be a good thing.

In fact, many planners trying to improve their business districts are now actively working to "calm" -- that is, SLOW -- traffic. I've noted several such instances: When Boosting Traffic Flow Kills Off Your Downtown: West Palm Beach, Pittsfield Merchants Want Slower Traffic and Virginia Project Narrows Road For Better Pedestrian Environment.

People have been talking about downtown revitalization and downtown traffic/parking issues at least since I moved to Framingham a quarter of a century ago. Very little has changed, except that many of the problems have become more pressing. Meanwhile, a number of nearby communities have overhauled their downtowns and created thriving new local business districts. Frankly, I'm among those who have their doubts that our current representative TM/Board of Selectmen governing structure can successfully design, lead and implement an outstanding downtown revitalization in a community of this size and complexity. I'd be very happy to be proven wrong.

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