Monday, March 12, 2012

Downtown is Special

Lamenting the under-use and massively wasted potential of our downtown is a regular habit of Riversiders. We all think that downtown Riverside is somewhere pleasant to be, somewhere special, and yet somehow lacking in a way that we never actually end up going down there for anything useful, besides city government. And, it turns out, that most Riversiders (at least the ones that I keep running in to) all have their finger on exactly what the problem is:

You have to pay for parking. If only the City would make parking free, we could stop going to the Plaza or Tyler Mall and go downtown instead!

Whenever I hear this argument, I alternate between feeling sick and feeling an overwhelming rage rise up within me. It has taken a lot of practice to get to a point where I can calmly, rationally, and efficiently demolish this argument when I encounter it... and yet it keeps popping up.

Okay, Riversiders, listen up, because I've got a few fundamental truths about cities for you. First, cities are populated by people. Not cars, people. Second, paid parking generally means that a lot of people want to go to a place-- so many people, in fact, that there's not enough space to store all of their cars. Third, parking lots are great places for cars, but not terribly pleasant places for people-- they're so unpleasant, in fact, that they destroy neighborhoods.

Knowing these things, we can derive that downtown is a special, unique place within the city. It's the one place (that's not a college campus) where automotive dominance is not complete, the one place where walking to get around is normal. That's what we like about downtown, everybody! We like being able to walk places, to feel the sun on our faces, to wave at our neighbors, to not have to worry about several tons of metal passing all around us all the time. We like the density, the passersby, the feeling that this place was built for human beings, not automobiles.  That's what's so special and unique and wonderful about downtown-- and the reason we're all lamenting its failed potential is that this vision is not quite realized. Huge parts of downtown have been rebuilt to cater to cars, and all of it has been forced to conform to single-use zoning. (More on the latter later.)

We can also see that adding free parking would destroy that- in one of two ways. First, if the City were to add a small section of free parking and not expand the parking system downtown, it would generate massive amounts of traffic circling in and around and through that area in hopes of snagging one of those elusive free parking spots-- because everyone should have the right to dump a ton or so of their property on public land at no charge-- and the traffic would harm the pedestrian environment wherever it went. (Not to mention, it would make going downtown an exercise in road rage.) Second, though-- and this is the more plausible scenario-- it would create a demand for more free parking. Surely, if we can make one lot free (and hey look! That lot's always full, it must be bringing people downtown), we can do it for every lot! And now they're all full, and there's no parking downtown, so we'd better bulldoze a building and blow your tax dollars on paving over the resulting empty lot. Give this process 10 years or so, and downtown will be even more choked by pavement than it already is.

No, what we really need downtown is not more cars, but more people. Remember that phrase above about single-use zoning? Yeah. When downtown was built, all of those little doors in the sides of buildings led up to apartments. Now they lead to dance studios and legal offices. Neither dance studios nor law offices are bad things, but neither produces a whole lot of activity outside of business hours. Apartments, on the other hand, mean that the people who are living there come and go at all hours of the day-- and, furthermore, that they're likely to shop in the area, creating demand for grocery stores and drugstores and coffee shops and restaurants and bars all the amenities of urban life that downtown currently lacks, like dry cleaning and 24-hour store hours. If you want to revitalize downtown, the solution isn't parking, it's people.

1 comment:

Rene said...

Emailed Mike and Ron about this article.