As someone who follows local development politics pretty closely, I’ve been watching a strange new debate unfold at City Hall. We’re used to hearing concerns about parking and neighborhood “character” from longtime homeowners. Now, that same argument is coming from a cast of comedians in support of Acme Comedy Co’s quest to stop the development of a neighboring parking lot into an apartment building.
You’d think that cranky comedians riffing about parking would be entertaining, but this debate is forcing me into an uncomfortable place, confronting familiar arguments from a fresh perspective. I don’t want to be the comedy-hating asshole lecturing about property rights and commanding people to move to the suburbs (I like jokes, I hate libertarians, I’m a cool guy). But I can’t shake the notion that a parking lot on the edge of downtown would be better used as housing for people than occasional storage for cars; it’s good for the city, it’s good for the neighborhood, and it’s good for business (even the comedy business I think).
We’re told, by the owner and others, that Acme Comedy Co is an asset to the city, a world-class venue that draws fans and performers from around the state and across the country. We’re also told by Acme’s owner that nobody in their right mind would visit his nationally-heralded comedy institution if they couldn’t park right out front. With the talent and creativity it took to build that kind of success, I’m pretty sure the owner could come up with a way to secure the car parking he says is essential to the survival of his business. Here’s a few ideas:
- Seek access to other available parking (there’s a nearby private ramp that closes and sits empty at night).
- Offer a valet service.
- Customers may choose to park in areas that require them to walk a little further.
- Customers may choose alternate modes (bike, bus, taxi, Uber/Lyft).
These are just a few solutions which don’t require forcing the owner of the disputed parking lot to keep it as a parking lot for as long as Acme finds it necessary and convenient. Most of these solutions also allow people to keep driving their cars. I didn’t even think very long or hard to come up with these ideas, so imagine what a guy could come up with if his thriving business was in danger.
While we’re talking about possible solutions, it’s probably necessary to clear up the widespread misconception that the city can force a parking arrangement on the owner of the lot. As a legal matter, the city can’t do that; they would get sued. As a policy matter, the city is rightly eager for people to build on surface parking lots.
Here’s another set of arguments I’ve found to be misguided: the idea that replacing a single parking lot with housing is about forcing people out of their cars and onto public transit; the idea of winter biking as a laugh line; and the idea of walking any distance in cold weather as a practical impossibility. I can’t relate to these arguments, because I’m the weirdo who takes the bus downtown, who bikes for groceries, who walks just about everywhere. I know some people prefer not to live this way, sometimes by circumstances beyond their control. Truly, I don’t begrudge your way of life. But yours is not the only way.
I’m not attempting a “War on Cars” here. But I do think we should want to become a city where more people are able to live and work and go to comedy clubs, without being made to feel as if a private car is the only sane way to get there. I won’t deny this is a long road to travel, made more difficult by decades of auto-centric government policy (favoring cheap and easy parking, among other things). I’m not asking anyone to give up their car, but we should slowly let go of our past mistakes, one parking lot at a time.
No matter what happens with this particular lot, I’m certain that your car trip to this urban comedy club will still be relatively fast, easy, and cheap. It’s just that, maybe paying a little more to park, or walking an extra block, or finding an alternate mode is the price we pay for an incrementally more humane urban landscape: another building, another neighbor, another customer, another opportunity.