Parking Here, Parking There

In many towns and cities a constant issue is parking: where are the parking spaces or lots? Are there enough spaces for all of the customers? When are there too many parking spaces? What is the balance? Where should parking spaces and lots be located? There is a fine line of how much space is necessary in order to accommodate shoppers, residents, visitors v. having too much space that empty parking lots make the town look desolate.

Who would have thought that parking issues connect so frequently to historic preservation? But, bring in our historic downtowns and city centers, and parking issues are everywhere. After all, think of Joni Mitchell who sang, “They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.” Much of our built environment has been paved for roads and parking lots. Businesses and institutions often want additional or closer parking.

What is a preservationist to do about parking lots? Obviously, in our auto-centric society, we cannot ignore the needs of vehicles, nor can we can convince everyone (maybe not even ourselves) that carpooling and public transit is always the right answer. Not everyone can live within walking distance of all services and goods. People will still need to drive and park close to businesses. And people like convenience. So what can we do? Read on. (Disclaimer: I am not a planner, so these thoughts on parking are purely my own preservation educated musings.)

Step One: Assess the amount of parking and the needs of parking, not only the impressions of needs. Identify the locations of parking spaces. Perhaps parking spaces are simply hard to find because the municipality lacks proper signage. When are businesses open? When is the town at its busiest? How do parking needs shift throughout the day? How often is parking a problem? Talk to your community.

Step Two: If parking is needed, identify where it would be most beneficial. Obviously demolishing a building block is not going to help downtown. A parking lot too far away will remain empty. A parking lot too large will look desolate. Perhaps a parking garage is a better solution. Or timed/metered spaces. Maybe parking spaces need to be formalized (properly striped and identified) so people know where they can park. Design is an important element.

Step Three: Keep in mind that although important, parking lots/spaces/garages should not be the deciding factor for preservation decisions. Parking is an important piece for a comprehensive plan, but is never an issue that should overpower all others. Consider whether parking in one location or parking spread throughout town is better for your community. And consider how it fits into the built environment.

Think parking garages are always a bad idea? Think again: check out these worth looking at.

What issues do you see about parking? What do you prefer – lots, garages, on street parking? Other?

Preservation ABCs: A is for Alley

Preservation ABCs is a series that will work its way from A to Z, bringing words into conversation that are relevant to historic preservation, whether it’s an idea, feature or vocabulary term. The idea is to help you see preservation everywhere you look and wherever you go. Enjoy! 


A is for ALLEY

Elfreth’s Alley, Philadelphia, PA. Photo source: Library of Congress. “GENERAL VIEW OF NORTH (LEFT) AND SOUTH SIDES OF THE ALLEY, LOOKING EAST” Click to go to original digital source.

What is an alley? An alley is a small, narrow street between or behind buildings, mostly in urban settings. Some alleys are for pedestrians only, some are for automobiles to access garages. What does an alley have to do with historic preservation? Alleyways are part of our planning and development history, giving us clues to how people traversed cities and used space. Also, think of it this way: as a culture, we are more likely to spruce front yards, building facades and the most publicly visible spaces that we inhabit. Alleys have the potential to show what the building looked like prior to improvements or stylized additions. 

Alleys are also working corridors. Often these narrow spaces between and behind buildings exist for services (trash collection, deliveries, vehicle parking) and are less traveled than the sidewalks on the streetscape. Because they are less traveled, alleys hold mystery.

Want to visit an alley? Elfreth’s Alley in Philadelphia, PA is a National Historic Landmark.

An Urban Beach

What are you planning to do with your last unofficial weekend of summer? Are you spending it on the beach, on some body of water? Not everyone  lives near a beach or someplace with access to usable waterfront. Some they live in a town or area that is landlocked or perhaps in a city that has yet to reclaim its industrial era waterfront land, often land previously used for shipping industries, grain elevators, railroad yards and related structures and infrastructure.

So, imagine you live in a town or city without beach access, with a waterfront that was full of potential. What if you could construct a “beach” for residents? What if that beach had clean sand, beach umbrellas and chairs, but no place for swimming? How does that sound? The concept exists in practice and is known as an “urban beach” or a “city beach.”

The Clock Tower Beach in Montreal, Quebec is such a thing. The waterfront in the Old Port has undergone extensive revitalization and a recent development is this beach. People pay an entrance fee and have access to sand, umbrellas, chairs, misting stations, restrooms, a snack bar and great views of the St. Lawrence River and the Montreal skyline views.

Clock Tower Beach: A manmade urban beach on the river in Montreal, Quebec.

At first the concept struck me as absurd: a beach that is just sand and no swimming? What fun is that? However, it is a unique alternative to additional grassy areas of a park. It’s summer – who wouldn’t want to put their toes in the sand and get some sun next to the water, lying in the sand, as opposed to sunbathing on grass.

The beach is open June – September. I wonder what it’s use will be in the winter. Will the sand be covered? Removed? If this area is only open for a few months out of the year, is that good land use planning?

Clock Tower Beach: Looking the other direction down the St. Lawrence River (nice truss bridge, too).

There is a traditional boardwalk promenade and tree filled grassy park in the Old Port, but this new beach is one of the most unique features. How inspiring to hear of new revitalization efforts thinking outside of the box. And, Toronto already has a beach – designed by the same company. Urban beaches exist in a few places, with only one in the United States listed.  Any others?

What do you think of an urban beach?  Want to visit? Here’s more information.

Small, Public Spaces: Parklets

Many of our New England towns and villages have limited street and sidewalk space when you take into account two lanes of travel, parking spaces and/or lanes, sidewalks and even snow piles. A cafe with outdoor seating is lovely in the warm weather, but only feasible when there is enough space for seating and for pedestrians on the sidewalk. A typical sidewalk, five feet in width, is not going to be sufficient for all our desires. And even then, do we really want to sit outside if a car is going to park next to our lunch seats? Maybe not. And what about benches (street furniture), trash/recycling bins and landscaping? In a nation that mostly caters to automobiles and convenience, roadways and parking spots often call the shots.

How can we add some green space and public space to our villages and cities with narrow sidewalks? Perhaps old news to some, a concept called a “parklet” is called the next big thing by Governing magazine. The article in the June 2012 issue, “Parklet: The Next Big Tiny Idea in Urban Planning,” explores the concept and prototypes of parklets. What is a parklet? Simply put, a parklet is the conversion (temporary or permanent) of a parking space or a few sparking spaces into a mini-park. Parklets can be furnished with outdoor benches, tables & chairs, umbrellas, landscaping in movable planters and similar items. They are designated for public use, meaning cafes and restaurants cannot serve to these park lets, and people are free to come and go as they please. Check out the slideshow with the Parklet article for great parklet designs.

Parklets began in 2009 in San Francisco, CA by the Bicycle Coalition and continues to be supported through the San Francisco Great Streets Project. The website is full of information including transformative before and after photos, from parking space to parklet. See also the How-to-Guide.  According to the Governing article, businesses often fund the park lets, but cities will sometimes share costs. Each parklet costs around $15,000 – $20,000. In terms of infrastructure, that is a small investment for long term positive effects to a community. As far as winter season, parklets can be disassembled and stored until warm weather returns.

So, what do you think? Does your town or city desperately need more green space and seating space? I can think of many towns that would benefit from a more interactive street, yet do not have the sidewalk space. Real estate, whether for streets or buildings, comes at a high premium in our compact villages. Using space wisely is a fine art. And typically, parking spaces are not something that municipalities are willing to lose. But what if just one parking space could be a parklet outside your local eatery or civic building? People could pause in the parklet, gather or meet there, get a cup of coffee to go from elsewhere and enjoy it in that space.

A parklet isn’t going to replace your town park, but it can get people to linger longer in the business district and to enjoy the surroundings. When was the last time you stood and looked up at the second or third story of a building? Imagine sitting on a bench in a parklet and gazing at the cornice on a historic building. Or – okay – people watching if that’s more your thing.  And the storefront aesthetics will be improved by the change from automobile to parklet fronting the building.

Some questions that need to be answered: how will the pedestrians in the parklet be protected from traffic? How long will the parklet stay? Who will fund it? However, next time you are walking through your town’s business district: look around. Where can you imagine a parklet?

What do you think? Good idea in theory, in practice, or both? An idea here to stay or just a trend? Do you know of similar ideas?

Pedestrian Malls

What do you think of streets closed to traffic (pedestrian malls)? Do you like to visit places with pedestrian malls? Would you like to live in a town or city with a pedestrian mall? They have a time and a place, yes?

Church Street in Burlington, VT is lined in brick and cars are only on the cross streets.

Church Street Marketplace in Burlington, Vermont is an excellent example of a successful pedestrian mall. Restaurants have outdoor seating. There is public art. Retail stores have actual sidewalk sales. Musicians sit on the brick lined street and play. Kids, couples, families stroll up and down the pedestrian mall. It’s beautiful and sunny and ambient. However, Church Street has not always been like this. Just a few decades ago it was a traditional downtown which had gone downhill until 1981 when Burlington began to reinvent itself, including Church Street. (Disclaimer: there is more history to downtown Burlington than that!)

But, pedestrian malls are not always successful. Look at Fayetteville Street in Raleigh, NC, which was converted to a pedestrian mall in 1976 in hopes of revitalizing the city. Instead, it had the opposite effect. In fact, the street was less populated and less popular than ever. Finally, in 2005, the city decided to return the street to vehicle and pedestrian use rather than just pedestrians.  However, the new plan included wider sidewalks, street furniture, plantings, wayfinding signage and a plan for additional development. The current result? Success.

Fayetteville Street in Raleigh, NC with wide sidewalks and street planting and furnishings. Image via Metro Jacksonville. Click for source.

Charlottesville, VA has a pedestrian mall as well that seems successful. And it has the giant chalkboard, if you recall.

Charlottesville, VA pedestrian mall and community chalkboard.

The best examples for pedestrian malls that I can think of lie in cities with a strong population base of college students and/or tourism. Aside from big cities, what about small towns? Could pedestrian malls work and would there be a good justification for creating them? I think of Vermont towns with small main street business districts. Many of our towns have one or two through roads, and converting a street to a pedestrian mall would not seem feasible. A park or a courtyard or a side street; however, could be another story. Additionally, many towns have limited parking and sidewalk space. A large sidewalk to accommodate seating, shopping, walking and street furnishings is just not possible.

What if we consider daily shopping v. tourism shopping? Ideally, our main streets and business districts across the country have restaurants, retail, pharmacies, markets and overall a good combination of – shall we say – those every day sorts of businesses and those fed by tourism and our “expendable” incomes.  In a business district that caters to the town itself rather than tourism and large crowds, a pedestrian mall would seem improbable and inappropriate. One reason is parking. People who need to stop at the pharmacy or the bagel shop or the bank want to be able to park in front of or near the building, and not have to walk from a parking garage or a far away spot in order to run a quick errand or two. Hence, pedestrian malls have a time and place. Small town America may not be the place.

Does anyone know of a town with a small main street business district that has been converted to a pedestrian mall? I’d be interested to know. While pedestrian malls are aesthetically pleasing, they seem ideal in warmer climates or those with large business districts that will attract many people. I’d like to hear a debate on pedestrian malls, one given by planners who have studied such issues and weighed the pros and cons and the factors at play. Are any of you readers skilled in such discourse? Care to give a brief overview of what is important to consider for the creation (or removal) of pedestrian malls?

So, readers, tell me your thoughts on pedestrian malls and parking in front of businesses? What do you think is preferable in theory? In practice?

Vacant Buildings: I Wish This Was

Most towns have at least one vacant storefront. Does yours? Mine does. Many more have vacant second or third (or more) stories above the ground floor, whether vacant or occupied. How does anyone fill those spaces? It takes more than an idea to create a viable business in any town; it takes money, planning, community support and then some. But, neighborhood revitalization and economic development begins with an idea, with an ounce of hope and excitement.

While a designated group may guide the development and implementation of an idea or a project, it likely grew out of ideas from many. What makes a successful endeavor is when the entire community contributes (which is why public input is an essential component of the Section 106 review process for historic resources). What is the best way to gain public interest and community involvement? Something catchy, of course. How do you come up with visions for your community? Brainstorming.

Recently, I came across a unique way to engage the community and to receive public input. It is a public art project called “I Wish This Was” created by artist Candy Chang, an artist, designer and urban planner. This project began in New Orleans, LA in November 2010 in order to figure out what the community needed and to inspire.

I Wish This Was a Grocery. (via: -- click for source)

I Wish This Was stickers. (via -- click for source)

See the Flickr photo set of “I Wish This Was” in action.

I love this idea. It seems so simple and so intriguing. People can voice their opinions without attending public meetings, which, frankly, most people do not enjoy. They can write on buildings (the particular stickers for sale will not cause property damage). People can scan the ideas of others for inspiration. The community can start dreaming and answering the questions, “What do you really want? What do you need in this town? In this location?”

Has anyone seen this project in person? What do you think? Would you use it in your town? It seems like a great idea. Red stickers would probably call attention to a vacant building.