My Turn, Michael Young: Lack of foresight on parking is staggering

Published 12:00 am Sunday, November 20, 2022

Politicians making decisions based on popularity, rather than facts leads to bad and sometime costly policy. This week, to fix a problem that never existed, Salisbury City Council did just that, ignoring 70 years of parking science and the economics of parking, to appease the lazy and shortsighted.

Growing up we had Trick-or Treat for UNICEF. At that time, money collected would be used to dig wells in places like Bangladesh, where feces and industrial pollutants contaminated streams and lakes were responsible for huge outbreaks of cholera. Little did anyone know that the clean water from the new shallow dug wells contained naturally occurring arsenic. Using and drinking clean well water that contains arsenic is deadly. The result was a slow death from chronic arsenic poisoning and cancer. Public health organizations had an uphill climb trying to get people to stop drinking the water from shallow wells. A popular program with good intentions had gone bad.   

If I was a teacher and walked into my first-grade class and announced that we were having chocolate cake for lunch every day for the rest of the year, I would be a popular teacher. Albeit my students would be chubby and vitamin deficient. Easily remedied with a healthy diet, precedent set would be hard to reverse.

In the first example, no one at the time, knew the outcome was going to be poison. In the second, chubby hyper adolescents with unhealthy eating habits were predictable and avoidable.  It’s the latter that I refer to. The dollars and cents (economics) of parking, studied by the Urban Land Institute, International Downtown Association, National Main Street Center, and others is relevant. But it doesn’t seem to matter to this City Council. It’s not popular.

What’s at issue? In Council’s decision to lease public parking to private individuals, second floor tenants, merchants and their employees, two-hour customer parking lots should never have been considered. Two-hour parking is for the customer. Period! Seventy years of parking science tells us that this is self-destructive and costly. We are robbing Peter to pay Paul for a bad reason. 

For merchants and their customers, parking, sales and profitability are measured on a time of day, day of week, week of month, month of year dynamic. At certain times of the day, week and year, those available spaces do fill and represent profits that offset losses or break even when those spaces are often empty. The last thing you want to do is remove profitability by eliminating parking spaces by filling them with cars that are not producing sales revenue.

An example… At the hospital, all the emergency room beds are not used most of the time. But when there is a pandemic or bus crash, they are all used. A bank does not use all the teller windows most of the time. But on Friday afternoon before a holiday weekend, every teller window is employed. Similarly, not all two hour parking spaces are used all the time downtown. But the first of the month, Thanksgiving week, the weeks leading up to Christmas they are all used. Should we expect merchants to lose those hundreds and in some cases thousands of dollars in sales (per day) for a $35.00 month parking space? Can we expect their customers to walk instead?

In addition, how many business vacancies do we have? Do we expect vacant storefronts to remain vacant forever? They will need parking for their customers, too. Do you expect that an existing underperforming retailer will not grow or never be replaced by a more robust, parking intensive business? I could go on but the lack of foresight here is absolutely staggering. Excess capacity (empty spaces) is not wasted. It is vital to 1) existing business profitability, 2) recruitment of new businesses and 3) existing small business growth and expansion.

We currently have 100% upper floor residential occupancy without needing to take parking from retailers. So why are we advocating for it now? Most residents are gone during the day and if not, can load and unload in two-hour spaces. Should we advocate converting even more two-hour spaces to promote additional upper floor development? Again, No! Parking for upper floor tenants should not come at the expense of first floor business and retail profitability because a store clerk or upper floor resident is too lazy to walk.

Should we do it for safety concerns? First, fix the existing lighting. Add more lighting. Provide better policing. Deal with the fear.

Our City and Main Street Program should be advocating for more all-day parking in smarter locations. We should be advocating for parking decks. For maintaining lighting and adding more. For better policing. But not parking at the expense of ground floor retail and their customers.

Two-hour parking is for the customer. Period. Smart decisions are not always popular. This is a bad precedent. Think about that next time you are circling, looking for a convenient place to park and shop downtown.

Michael S. Young is vice president of Downtown Graphics Network, Inc.

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