Downtown Stuck in Park

I had the good fortune of being invited to a meeting with Chris Leinberger who was stopping through town on his way to Mexico City.  Leinberger keynoted CNU23 here in Dallas where he showed off his recent Walk-Up Wake Up Call study of the Boston metro area.  The study examines all of the walkable places in the entire metro region and then examines the real estate premium for each land use sector.

It’s some pretty fascinating base line data necessary for good public policy decisions related to what, where, how, and why to put public infrastructure dollars into play in a way that nudges the private real estate market to deliver high quality, walkable, productive development and great places.  Crazy idea, I know.  Without that kind of data we’re stuck with long-term regional planning that simply moves around hypothetical future millions of people wherever is needed to justify the next highway project.

What does this have to do with parking?  Very little except that I can only imagine Chris would say similar things that I would.  What was interesting was a point he made about Dallas being an outlier compared to the rest of the country where downtown growth lead the way and then helped revitalize downtown adjacent neighborhoods.  Dallas is doing it backwards where the downtown adjacent neighborhoods are rising up like the tide trying to lift the boat of downtown.  A downtown that has a giant anchor of highways, car-dependence, and parking dragging it down.

More parking may help deliver a few new short-term leases, but it doesn’t effectively drive demand.  It doesn’t increase rents.  As such it is antithetical to long-term success.  For downtown to be successful, it has to abide by an entirely different logic than the suburbs, where parking provides a governor on long-term value.  Downtown should have no governor.  Its value should be so high that we would be crazy to turn over square footage to unproductive uses like parking.  Downtown office rents are below market not because of a lack of parking but because of a lack of productive real estate, of which parking displaces.  If cheap rents aren’t luring companies, more parking isn’t going to help matters when what is necessary is higher rents.

Downtown property owners should be repositioning not to chase White Whales, but to get start-ups, tech, and entrepreneurs in the space to make it cool.  Lift rents that way by attracting the same kind of people that will live downtown and have the best parking spot money can buy, a bedroom nearby.  Look no further than 211 N. Ervay as an example.  This is a building countless people have tried to tear down in order to make way for more parking.

Companies desperate for talent (which isn’t attracted to parking) shouldn’t be spending $30,000 per parking space to provide cheap parking for their employees but rather buying them $1000 DART passes.  Young talent is looking for car-light or car-less lifestyle which then helps the residential real estate market in downtown and the downtown adjacent neighborhoods.  In urban places, the value of all things is inextricably linked like a spider web.  In car-dependent places, each use, each building is an island within a sea of parking.  Ubiquitous parking breaks the web of local synergies.

Parking is both an asset and a liability that must be managed.  We have simultaneously too much parking and too little because it is currently mismanaged.  We have office garages and surface lots all over downtown that sit empty at nights and weekends blighting the landscape and blunting the vibrancy and real estate values in downtown.  We have residential garages sitting empty during the day.  And it is pervasive and ubiquitous no matter what anybody tells you expecting cheap, convenient parking wherever they go.  I’d suggest these people go find a walmart to go shop in, but even Walmart’s mindset is more advanced.

If any parking study is done, it should be secondary to the Downtown 360 plan.  It should serve the goals established by the 360 process in support of downtown.  If there is to be a study (and who knows how much will be wasted on it), it should be no more than a survey of existing inventory, costs and day/night occupancies.

What we need is good data which then should serve the strategy of systematically healing downtown.  A healthy downtown has very low parking/land use ratios.  We should be doing what Seattle does, which is an inventory of every downtown and downtown adjacent neighborhood’s parking supply and then systematically increasing productive land uses and reducing the parking to land use ratio.

Downtown is too important to be left to those that will make it nothing but parks and parking.  Beyond that, I’ll leave it to the godfather of parking strategy and management: