When city leaders are rifling through their bags of tricks for dazzling enticements to bring companies to business districts and downtown areas, they tend to first grab the tried-and-true corporate tax incentives and enterprise zones. However, missing at the bottoms of many of their bags are strategic parking plans that would make businesses easy to find, and convenient and safe for customers and workers to use.
Accessible parking can be an attractive part of a city’s marketing message to draw businesses downtown. By creating strategic parking plans — with location and availability as key elements — city leaders can support local businesses by simplifying the trip to retail areas that need help, as well as making it easier for company employees to get to and from work.
What’s in the plan?
Parking prices also are important and can be used to encourage employees to park further away from their workplace, leaving open spaces closer to the businesses for customers. Concentric parking rates, for example, establish different prices in various on-street lots, off-street lots and municipal garages. Generally, charging higher rates in retail-rich downtown areas and gradually reducing rates away from commercial centers tends to move those needing long-term parking to lots further from the valuable core areas. Additionally, it helps spread the parking demand to areas that may be underused.
Traffic congestion also plays an important role in parking plans. City leaders can help reduce traffic congestion downtown by situating parking spaces and garages off busy streets and near bus terminals, subway stations and other forms of public transportation. Evenly spaced parking areas also can reduce traffic congestion, increasing pedestrian safety, which also can benefit businesses.
City planners must have a complete understanding of existing parking behaviors before making any changes. A parking study — which typically includes surveys and interviews with parkers, local business owners and other stakeholders — can help define the factors necessary to create a parking plan.
It took a village
The Village of LaGrange, Ill., recently completed a parking study to determine how much parking to add to meet the community’s needs without creating urban sprawl. The study found that, based on business and residential trends, the village had approximately 150 spaces fewer than it needed to meet existing parking requirements. In addition, the deficit would grow by an additional 50 spaces over the next decade.
“One of the outcomes from the study was a better understanding and appreciation that you can’t just provide parking for customers,” says Robert Pilipiszyn, village manager. “The adage of ample, convenient and readily available parking also applies for the employees of local businesses.”
Based on those results, village officials decided to build a new parking deck on the site of an existing, village-owned parking lot. Because the study found that local businesses would be willing to help pay for the new structure, a small sales tax was implemented to help underwrite the maintenance costs.
Village planners also found that, by understanding parking behaviors, they could make operational adjustments to further maximize the existing parking supply. “Our parking study found that we have a retail mix which would support the implementation of 15-minute parking spaces at block ends as an added convenience for shoppers,” Pilipiszyn says.
The village’s new tri-level, 365-space parking structure opened in December 2005. Unlike the deck, where people can park for as long as they like, on-street parking spaces are metered and have a two-hour limit. Downtown employees can purchase decals that permit them to park in the deck for $20 a month, and patrons can park in the deck if they want to stay downtown for more than two hours. On-street parking violations by business employees have significantly decreased as employees have become more accustomed to using the deck, and prime on-street parking spaces close to restaurants and other businesses have been opened up for patrons.
Setting the right rates
With research results in hand, city officials must determine that the types of parking that are created will support the city’s planning goals, and that those parking spaces exist in the most beneficial locations. Additionally, planners must ensure that parking rates are neither too high nor too low, and that any parking subsidies, such as parking validation programs, will pay dividends that will offset losses in parking revenues.
Planners have numerous models they can use to determine how rates will affect parking behavior. In some situations, parking revenue is needed to fund capital and operating costs, while in others, the cost of improving the parking situation would require charging higher rates than the market would bear. Occasionally, parking revenue and fines can be pooled to fund additional parking.
Warren, Mich., officials grappled with those issues two years ago, when they conducted a parking study for an area they wanted to turn into a central business district. They found that the parking plan would need to serve two functions. First, it had to help create new businesses in a city that traditionally had been dominated by residential development. Second, because the area for the new downtown was nearly completely developed, the plan had to find land for new businesses and parking.
As was the case in LaGrange, city officials decided to build up, rather than out. New parking structures have been planned for existing parking lots, adding many parking spaces and opening space for development. “By converting our surface parking to structures, we will be able to free up 17 acres of land for redevelopment,” says Gina Cavaliere, director of the Warren Downtown Development Authority. “We have traditionally been an underserved market, and our parking plan is the first step in creating opportunities for the addition of new restaurants, retail and other businesses.”
Warren’s planners also want to control the types of businesses that are added downtown, introducing small shops and restaurants, as well as adding residences and professional companies. Planning the parking needed in the area is playing an important role in that effort. “We developed a parking plan that revolves around high-density, mixed-use projects providing street-level retail, restaurant and business space within them,” Cavaliere says. “By combining parking and retail, commercial, and residential services in the same buildings, we are also able to provide a much more convenient experience for visitors, employees of local businesses, and residents.” Warren officials are promoting the district’s parking plan in marketing materials used to attract new retail development.
Where should we park?
Signs should be used to define the parking options for guests visiting downtown areas. Drivers should be directed to appropriate parking areas, which also will help manage long- and short-term parking.
Other strategies, such as direct mail and municipal parking Web sites, also can inform visitors where they should park. Municipal planners also can work with local editors and reporters to help inform the public about the city’s parking program, as well as demonstrate to local businesses the city’s commitment to supporting them.
Ensuring the economic viability of the community is important to all local government officials, and maximizing the access to key business areas will be enhanced by strategically planning where people can park. Ultimately, an effective parking plan creates a competitive edge for communities to support local businesses and attract new ones.
Richard Rich is director of parking planning services for Southfield, Mich.-based Rich and Associates.