Providence Should be About People, not Parking

Editor’s note: The following letter, edited by ecoRI News, was sent by e-mail March 5 to Christopher Ise, principal planner for Providence’s Downtown Design Review Committee, by local resident James Kennedy.

Dear Mr. Ise,

I was unable to attend your Design Review Committee meeting tonight, but I wanted to share my thoughts on the proposed parking garage.

First, I would like to encourage your committee to reject any proposal to allow a garage without first-floor commercial occupants. I understand that the designers of the garage have asked to be able to build one without this provision. The consensus should be that any garage has to have ground-floor activity. Designers who can’t meet that qualification should go to Worcester or New Haven, where they can have free reign to ruin everything around them.

I would like to propose that a major concern of the committee be pushing the city to charge a high surface-parking-lot tax. Many of the garage projects that have been taken up in Providence have had some component of state backing. The argument for this has been that we need to anticipate new demand for downtown, and to try to supplant surface lots. I believe that one of the reasons garages have been so hard to finance has been that the tax system we have set up rewards surface lots, which as you know are by far the cheapest way to provide for motorist parking.

If we correct this problem, there should be no need to give any aid at all to garages. People will either find that there is enough demand to finance them privately, or not at all. The surface-lot tax would dividend all of its proceeds to lower property taxes, which I think would also tend to encourage infill in a way that dissuades people from needing to drive in the first place, and would also help affordable housing while building business.

A surface lot is a major problem, and the intuitive response that a garage is better makes sense up to a point. But a surface lot that is taxed properly will soon become too expensive to operate for cars and we will see some development, while a garage is inherently a 30- to 50-year commitment to cars.

This garage proposal is far enough along that I expect it to pass the committee’s review, but I would also like to ask that the committee consider a moratorium on further garage expansion. Many countries are setting limits on parking, not just to get rid of surface lots, but also to limit the amount of garage spaces.

We hear complaints of traffic associated with new projects, but the traffic results from there being ample spaces to park. The city of Zurich, Switzerland, has had a policy since the 1990s of limiting new parking only to garages that remove an equal number of parking spaces from somewhere on the street. These spaces are then used to create bikeways, transit lanes, sidewalks, or places for open markets.

The Design Committee should take an active interest in pushing, at the very least, a parking-neutral approach to downtown growth. This parking-neutral approach met with much resistance from the business community in Zurich when first proposed, but was almost immediately understood to be a boon to profits when it was finally implemented, and now is wildly popular.

A parking-neutral option isn’t the most advanced policy we could take. The city of Amsterdam, well known for both its robust economy and its green infrastructure, has been removing 2 percent to 3 percent of its parking spots annually for some time. It has resulted in more lively public spaces and better preparedness for climate change.

The recent discussion of the Pawtucket Red Sox possibly moving to downtown Providence has really put a sharp point on parking. The Providence Journal ran an article asking whether there was enough parking for game-goers, estimating very wildly that more than 3,000 spaces were needed to accommodate games that were attended 100 percent by people who drove — the new owners, for their part, have said they favored the location in downtown for its “urban transportation,” so go figure.

In any case, however liberal the projection of 3,000 cars might be, the fact is that the Providence Downtown Improvement District produced a tourist video in 2013 proclaiming that there are 15,000 parking spots downtown. Certainly, the Design Committee should take an active role in reminding people of this fact.

Healthy communities are not about cars; they’re about buildings and people. Please consider a lighter footprint for parking in Providence’s future.

Thank you for your time in reading my long e-mail,

James Kennedy
Transport Providence