October 13, 2006

Belmont’s Planner: The Overemphasis on Parking

From this week's Belmont Citizen-Herald:
Promoting the concept of smart downtown parking, Kent Robertson, professor of Community Development at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota, notes that planners and businesspeople put too much emphasis on parking, by elevating its importance over the functions that actually attract people in the first place. Nobody goes to town centers or squares just because there are ample places to park. They come to work, to shop, to socialize, and to partake of all the other activities that constitute a center. Smart parking complements and reinforces those elements that create a sense of place: compactness, walk-ability, interesting and diverse shops.

So Jay Szklut, planning and economic development manager in Belmont's Office of Community Development, wisely notes. Planning for the automobile instead of the person doesn't do much for a downtown business district.

"Utilizing minimum off-street parking requirements based on suburban parking generation rates reduces commercial density levels, spreads out destination points discouraging walking and, where parking is on-site, discourages sidewalk use, thereby making the area less pedestrian-friendly," he points out.

He concludes by calling for a parking garage as part of the revitalization of Belmont's Cushing Square. I don't know enough about the particular site to comment on that solution one way or the other. But I agree completely that, particularly for a town business district which can't compete with malls for massive amounts of parking but can compete for sense of place, "too much parking in the wrong places discourages people from walking, while adequate parking in a strategic location promotes a pedestrian atmosphere.

"One other smart parking principle is the use of on-street parking. On-street parking provides a buffer between moving traffic and the sidewalk, which makes people feel safer. Safety translates to pedestrian friendliness." So does an aesthetically appealing streetscape - without one, people won't want to walk around no matter what else you do.

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