By JAMES KENNEDY
PROVIDENCE — The proposed Garrahy Judicial Complex parking garage has recently garnered attention as state lawmakers confirmed its $43 million price tag. Now the proposed garage has a new critic — engineer Charles Marohn, whose urbanist podcast Strong Towns coined the term “Ponzi Scheme of Suburban Development,” called the garage proposal “crazy” in a recent phone conversation.
“Let me get this straight, you removed I-195, and your city’s plan to attract development is to build a parking ramp? That's exactly backwards,” he said.
Marohn, a self-described libertarian-leaning fiscal conservative, started his website from unexpected origins. Working in the engineering profession near his home in Brainerd, Minn., Marohn built many car-oriented projects, but the more he did the math, the more the projects had him scratching his head.
In a must-read essay entitled “Confessions of a Recovering Engineer,” Marohn explains that he came to the conclusion that growth around suburban sprawl and urban mega-projects was illusory, because the second- and third-generation costs of infrastructure could never be paid from the surplus growth of the initial investment. Marohn has now visited 46 of the lower 48 states, observing and speaking on this problem. His views have attracted an unusual cross-section of left, right and center.
Instead of expensive, top-down investment in mega-projects, like the Garrahy Judicial Complex parking garage, Marohn said Providence needs to work with smaller pilot projects, build success and move from there.
“You may have people thinking you’re going to build a Little Boston on twenty acres overnight,” he said, “but Boston wasn’t built with huge infusions of money around big centralized projects. It was developed a little at a time.”
Asked what he might do to spur growth, Marohn recommended cheaper, higher-yield projects such as protected bike lanes. “The very best investment is biking and walking,” he said. “It’s so cheap, and produces so much genuine growth. Parking is expensive.”
Marohn doesn't oppose parking garages, but said the I-195 Commission was “skipping about twenty steps.”
“In the beginning, if anything, you want parking problems. If people can’t find a parking spot, that’s a sign of success,” he said. “Are people going to get in their cars and visit a parking ramp? No. Build a place that people want to go, and the need for a garage may eventually come about naturally.”
Marohn was critical of expecting intense high rise-style density quickly, and wasn’t deterred by reports that some I-195 plots have faced an uphill battle to develop.
“Of course density is good, but if you have trouble developing high rises, go for smaller incremental pilots,” he said. Three-story buildings are great in an urban area if you can’t get 50-story towers, Marohn said. Density can also look like Rhode Island’s walkable villages and successful urban shopping districts. Providence is more desperate than it should be, he added.
While he doesn’t think government can be an exact replica of business for a lot of reasons, he said there are still similarities. He asked if a business would throw all its money into a huge project to start? “No. Build walkable, bikeable, small projects, and you'll not only have a better city, but you'll be able to afford the city you build.”
The cost of a protected bike lane using plastic flex posts is $15,000-$30,000 per mile. The garage money — at $43 million, plus interest — could build nearly 3,000 miles of these lanes. That's quite a lot of biking for Little Rhody, where longer swaths of suburban territory already have Dutch-style bike paths. The major unconnected areas remain Providence, Pawtucket, Central Falls and Woonsocket.
Providence resident James Kennedy runs the blog Transport Providence.