NEW GARAGES FOR THE DOWNTOWN: How Can We Get What We Need?

“You can’t always get what you want,” sang the Rolling Stones, “but if you try sometimes you just might find you get what you need.”  One of the signs of maturity is recognizing that you’ve got to give in order to get, that the real discussion should be about the nature of the trade-off rather than the need to compromise.  Recent developments are forcing us to decide how to balance the benefits and costs of increased parking in downtown Boston.  At stake are not just the parking spaces but the future nature of Boston life – its physical shape and feel, its residential friendliness, its commercial prosperity, the quality of its environment and its population’s health.

Parks and people are good.  Cities thrive when there are lots of both.

More car traffic coming into Boston is bad.  It increases pollution (air, water, and noise), makes our streets less safe and inviting no matter how you are getting around, forces government to continue shaping the built environment around the needs of cars rather than people, and makes it hard to get public support for creating less destructive modes of movement.  When the car is king, people get run over.

Getting parked cars off the street into garages is good.  It reduces pollution-causing congestion and frees up street space for non-car use.

But encouraging more car traffic is bad.  And parking is one of the key factors influencing urban travel choices.  The belief that there is ample parking makes people much more likely to drive all the way downtown rather than use the T or bike.  Of course, the reality is that parking is tight – it is estimated that about 30 percent of the cars circling a city at any given time are looking for parking.

(The cheapness of on-street meters in comparison to off-street garages just makes matters worse, encouraging people to keep circling.  Several cities are now exploring Donald Shoup’s insight in The High Cost Of Free Parking that charging “market rates” for non-handicapped on-street parking will encourage drivers to use an off-street garage or park a little distance from their destination and then walk.)

Parking has such a huge impact on the amount of downtown driving that public officials seeking to improve the residential livability and commercial activity of their business districts, while reducing the flow of funds for cars and fuel out from their region, sometimes slowly reduce the overall amount of parking available in downtown areas, both on-street and in garages.  Tactics include removing on-street spots and reducing or eliminating minimum parking space requirements in new developments (particularly those near transit services) as well as imposing limits on new garages.  It works, promoting street life and business as Copenhagen and other cities have discovered.  (And it works even better when governments simultaneously invest in public transit and bicycling facilities to make non-car travel easier!)

Now the Mass Eye and Ear Institute (MEEI) wants to build a 1,000-car underground garage right next to the Longfellow Bridge.   They will invest about $173 million and want taxpayers to cover the $30 million cost of relocating Storrow Drive closer to the Charles River.  In exchange, they will build a park on top of the parking space.

Ignore for a minute that the land where the proposed garage will be built is already owned by the public and should never have been changed from the parkland it once was to the surface-level parking lots MEEI now uses.

But we can’t ignore that this proposal is not happening in isolation.  The Boston Redevelopment Authority is currently poised to give permission for the creation of another 1,000-space capacity garage just outside downtown on A Street in Southie – despite previous promises that the area would be used for a mixed-use neighborhood containing at least 11 acres of open space with at least one-third of the development being residential.   Parking is a major part of recent development proposals for the Kenmore area, the Kennedy Greenway, and other downtown locations.  A recent letter to the Boston Business Journal points out that the development of the Seaport area will remove a major source of low-cost parking and calls on the city to “thaw” its current “parking freeze.”  And a columnist just issued a rant about the “war on parking.”  Is this the beginning of a trend, an effort to make downtown – and perhaps the city – more car friendly?

It’s clear that each of the developers, from Mass Eye and Ear to Commonwealth Ventures to Don Chiofaro, will benefit by making their particular project more accessible to car-driving commuters and clients.  But will the city?  Will the general public?  Will taxpayers?

Given the reality of this country’s built environment – the residential sprawl and the lack of public transportation – cars will continue to be an important part of the travel mix for years to come and we will continue to need places to park them.   It is possible to use technology to improve the efficiency of parking space utilization. The International Parking Institute has shown that it is possible to build less damaging parking facilities – minimizing water runoff and pollution issues, running on solar energy, providing space for bikes and connections to transit, providing retail services and other activities beyond car storage. (For more on this, check the EPA’s Green Parking Lot Resource Guide, or the DC nonprofit Casey Trees short guide, or the San Mateo County, California, Sustainable Green Streets and Parking Lots Design Guidebook.)

But do we really want more parking spaces downtown?  Is the recapturing of a small amount of parkland that we, the public, should never have lost in the first place worth the price of thousands of more cars coming through already-dysfunctional Charles Circle every day? Do we really want to encourage more people to drive all the way into the core city rather than leave their vehicles further out?  Perhaps these projects are good candidates for application of a “health impact analysis” that will examine the impact of this kind of development on our well-being?

If the “car is no longer king in Boston” aren’t there better ways to manage transportation demand?

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Related previous posts:

>RECLAIMING THE LESSONS OF PAST VICTORIES: Traffic Is Not Inevitable

>GENERATING THE POWER TO SAVE THE “T”: The Business Community Needs To Move

>MOVING URBAN INNOVATION BACK TO THE FUTURE: Reclaiming the Village and the Street

>HEALTH IMPACT ASSESSMENTS (HIA) AND ADVOCACY: Useful Tool or Sophisticated Smoke Screen?

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