Monday, August 6, 2007

Parking Is Not Free

This piece was published in Whatcom Watch earlier this year:

Parking is not free. The land under vehicles — whether moving or at rest — is valuable and owned by someone, either a government entity or a private interest. Permission to park on public property is a privilege, not a right. Policy regarding parking is adopted by the elected body and administered by public servants according to established laws, regulations and practices.

Changes are always possible, but subject to deliberation and consideration of all reasonable impacts. Changes can be upsetting to established practice, but are sometimes necessary. Growth is a change with cumulative effects that happen over time. Compact growth exacerbates noticeable problems greatly and quickly, and must be dealt with carefully with a long-term view of fairness, flexibility and reality.

Parking is not likely to become either cheaper or easier to provide, rather, the opposite will happen. Old habits, customs and practices will need to change over time to adapt to the new realities that are evolving.

A comprehensive plan for parking citywide in Bellingham is needed, but will not be easy to develop except in its guiding principles to address change over time. A parking plan for specific, concentrated public areas should be much simpler to develop, implement and use.

Civic Center and Cultural District Parking

Such an area is the civic center and its adjacent cultural district in downtown Bellingham. Parking problems in this area have grown to the point that action is required without undue further delay. To the extent these specific problems can be reasonably and sustainably addressed would inform and encourage similar action elsewhere.

As a microcosm of parking related problems, the civic center and cultural district deserves our immediate attention, energy and action. Any resolution to the parking scarcity in this heavily and constantly used area will certainly help the institutions, facilities, businesses, patrons and others to use this area more efficiently and effectively. Done correctly, it could also encourage much greater use of public transit, bicycles and pedestrian walkways, as well as demonstrate the multiple advantages of planning for future urban centers.

Parking is what it is — currently an accommodation to conventional transportation, primarily private motorized vehicles. The space taken up by parking is now too valuable for that use alone. Fees, collected from meters, do not begin to cover the costs of land strictly dedicated to parking, and if they do, they won’t for long.

There is no denial of the need for adequate and conveniently located parking. That is certainly necessary; however, what citizens expected to be freely provided in the past is now becoming more costly and unrealistic each year.

Citizens have voted to voluntarily tax themselves for more green space, but not for more parking. That means that parking needs require a way to pay for themselves, either as privately provided incentives to shop or as parking fees to pay for structured facilities near where people need and want to go. A fiscally responsible alternate is to simply not provide free parking for private vehicles.

Periodically, there have been parking studies conducted, but none have been comprehensive, widely supported or their recommendations accepted and achieved. Some have been admittedly been limited in scope; others have simply begged creditability. Even the actions taken more recently by the City Council are still being questioned as necessary, fair or even in the right direction, despite their clearly expressed rationale.

What Needs to Be Done?

So, what is to be done? Nearly everyone agrees something needs to be done, whether it is to return to the prior system, providing cheaper or free parking downtown, or building costly structures to attract cars to support business, entertainment or visitors.

Most citizens agree that much better parking solutions should be provided in the civic center and cultural district, they just don’t want to pay for it themselves — preferring to externalize the problem and its solution to “others.” Perhaps the “others” should be the users? But these users will also likely need help to get traction toward visible progress.

What follows is an idea regarding the new library parking space that may serve to satisfy several needs, but certainly not all.

Both city and county governments are concentrated in one fairly compact area, and both have expanded significantly during the last several years, along with the general population and its need for services.

Necessary capital improvements has also occurred recently to make the publicly-owned Mt. Baker Theater and Whatcom Museum more viable in attracting the type of regional economic development envisioned and enabled by the Public Facilities District. A new Children’s Museum is being constructed and significant improvements to the streetscapes in the immediate area are underway.

All of these activities are expected to have the effect of making this area much more of a truly people place, much more of the time. The net result will be more people visiting the area and more businesses encouraged to invest in it. This is a scenario designed to create a greater need for both alternate transportation and parking, and it is happening!

Now, the time for investment in another well-used public facility in this same area is drawing near — the Bellingham Public Library. Planning for the next 50 years means that a larger and more modern building to provide the library and public meeting facilities is needed soon.

Fortunately, the block on which the current library stands is already owned by the city and can provide sufficient space for the new facility, as well as structured, underground parking for a significant number of vehicles that typically visit the civic center.

Use All Available Underground Space for Parking

Funding for any new library must come from a publicly-voted bond measure, which would typically include only a limited amount of parking directly associated with library operations. But, it would make sense to consider using all the available underground space to produce significantly more parking than the library requires or should be expected to finance.

It would also make fiscal sense to construct any parking beyond that needed by the library at the time the new library is built. Preliminary estimates are that up to about 250 parking spaces could be provided under the existing library land, providing an essential part of its foundation.

Most of this parking could be used for city and county civic use during business hours and cultural events parking afterwards as well. This new parking would be easily accessible and off the streets, but not free. It would need to charge the various users, as the preferred way of repaying any councilmanic bond passed to cover the costs of only that parking over and above the library’s needs.

Absent a comprehensive parking plan for the entire downtown, perhaps our local governments will consider the lack of adequate parking in the civic center and cultural district area a serious enough problem to address soon. It is the job of these governments to do so, and in a timely fashion.

Any parking plan developed for this area needs to be reasonable and fiscally sensible, with adequate sensitivity to soliciting, hearing and carefully evaluating the input of citizens. The library’s needs are real, as are the parking problems in the immediate area.

Perhaps, the consideration of both issues simultaneously can result in highly synergistic benefit to the city and county governments, the library, area businesses and institutions, and most all, the citizens. That seems a worthy goal!