“Parking is the antithesis of walkability” said brownfield developer Robert Colangelo at yesterday’s Building Sustainable Communities workshop. At this workshop about sustainable urban development, we, the audience, were asked to define smart growth. One of the panelists, land use lawyer Grady Gammage, said succinctly that there is one word that describes smart growth and that is walkability.
So, if parking is the antithesis of walkability, it must then be the antithesis of smart growth. This explains why our rapid expansion outward from Downtown, starting with Park Central mall in 1957, was the opposite of smart growth, because it was a move towards parking and away from walkability.
Fifty years later, here we are. We’re left with a city which is largely comprised of parking lots. According to architect and planner at the City of Tempe, Bonnie Richardson, 29%-45% of our urban fabric in Phoenix comprises of paved surfaces, which is a statistic that has created urban heat island effect, poor air quality, and an overall lower quality of life. All this for easy parking.
Chris Wass, founding partner at Firefly Living, said to me, “I have always challenged people to find one interesting place were parking is convenient…they do not exist.” If you think about it, what Chris is saying is true. Think of all the places where parking is plentiful: big box stores, strip malls, fast food restaurants and big developments like Desert Ridge and Tempe Marketplace. These places might be convenient, sometimes even fun, but you have to admit, they’re pretty predictable.
Now think of some places where parking is inconvenient. A couple of places that come to mind are Le Grand Orange on Campbell and 40th Street and Windsor/Churn on Oregon and Central in Phoenix. Both places are embedded in neighborhoods, making them very walkable for those who live in the area. And because of their human scale, because they don’t have a sea of parking in the front, they attract lots of people. In turn, these places have become destinations, even for those who don’t live close enough to walk or bike, making parking a real pain but making a case for smart growth.
These places demonstrate that you don’t need a whole lot of parking to have a successful business and to create economic vibrancy. This may seem obvious, but thus far, for over fifty years now, municipalities in the Valley have required an enormous amount of parking for commercial and institutional projects. They are still operating under the assumption that for a business to be viable, it needs lots of parking.
Even more unfortunate, this fifty-year-old assumption is applied in the heart of our city even today. This year, in Downtown Phoenix, another parking lot was added to the urban fabric where the old Downtown Ramada Inn used to stand. For some reason, we continue to think parking is the key to success in our city, even in the most dense locations that are served by Light Rail.
I hope successful developments like Le Grand Orange and Windsor/Churn as well as some other similar parking-lite models will start to change the tide and move us back towards the direction of walkability, towards smart growth.