Parking: Urban Thoughts from Suburban Eyes

parkingthoughts1As a retired real estate entrepreneur, I’ve taken an interest in focusing the experience and skills I’ve accumulated over years of work in suburban retail development, and the time retirement now affords, to offer observations and potential solutions as efforts continue to revitalize Lexington’s downtown.

I don’t claim to have all of the answers to the challenges of sustaining the redevelopment of our central business district. And I have the greatest respect for the many others who are offering their active and earnest engagement in the process of figuring out the best course of action.

After decades of intimate involvement in the design and construction of suburban commercial developments, I believe many of the lessons of that work can be reimagined to benefit our downtown.

Given my suburban experience, it was easy to contrast development opportunity in the city’s core versus that of its suburbs. And after assessing downtown development potential, it is clear that no greater disadvantage exists than parking.

While urban parking is a problem common to many cities, it is an especially important challenge for us in light of our decision as a community to prevent sprawl into the unique outer ring of greenspace surrounding our city’s core.

The elusive downtown customer is complex and requires additional study, but one thing rings clear: When this customer comes downtown they do not walk, bus or bike, they drive. And when they do, they are challenged by the multiple shortcomings of our disconnected parking systems, producing confusion, congestion and circumvention.

Comprehensively looking at downtown parking, in my opinion, begins with the existing customer, who is often pampered with the best spaces, and the potential customer, who doesn’t understand the nuances and is pushed toward the less convenient spots, thereby encouraging less repeat visits. We learned the lesson long ago in suburbia, to incorporate lease language requiring employees to park in designated remote areas. In downtown, we must reassess current “reserved space” locations, while balancing the politics of doing so.

Put simply, if downtown parking is viewed as a pain compared with the relative ease of pulling up close to a suburban business, the typical car-driving suburban Lexingtonian can be expected to avoid downtown. And that works directly against all efforts to revitalize the city’s core and contain expansion into the surrounding landscapes that contribute to Lexington’s attractiveness.

In the fall of 2011, Space Group, the Oslo-based urban design firm, offered its master plan for a proposed 48-acre Rupp Arena Arts and Entertainment District. The vision included parking solutions that would conveniently serve the proposed district while likely drawing traffic away from what is already developing, on its own, as downtown entertainment zones: the section of Short Street between Broadway and Limestone, as well as the Jefferson Street corridor and other sections of the Northside.

And then there is the area east of Limestone, where such venues as The Downtown Arts Center, Alfalfa’s, Natasha’s Bistro & Bar, Portofino and the Kentucky Theater struggle to compete with the concentrated energy of the western portion of downtown. Yet, these existing, functioning investments in our downtown should be among infrastructure priorities, with convenient parking at the top of the list.

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