The Journal World article asks whether parking downtown is a real problem, or one of perception. I’ve had to confront this question as a frequenter of downtown destinations, as a city commissioner, and as an architect. The answer, of course, is yes.
In my personal experience, I have always believed that the problem is one of perception. If I have to walk two blocks to my destination, I’m happy to do it. And there is never a parking problem for someone who knows the area and is willing to walk two blocks. Never.
But I also know that for my aging parents, walking two blocks is no longer an option. And for them, parking downtown is a very real problem. In fact, we have pretty much given up on meeting for dinner dates with my parents downtown because of the hassles of getting them in and out of restaurants and parking slots. Maybe if I kept a couple traffic cones in the car and reconnoitered Mass Street in advance of their arrival and was willing to fight off interlopers I could overcome the issue. This problem will only grow as our demographics continue to skew more elderly.
The other real parking problem downtown involves — pardon me for being so indelicate to say this — our merchants’ employees. On many occasions I have overheard store staff bragging about their skills at finding and feeding the primo Mass meters or lamenting their many parking tickets because they have parked in the short term slots in front of their employers’ stores. Those spaces belong to customers, not staff. If the employees either don’t understand or respect that, and many of them clearly don’t, the employers aren’t doing their jobs.
The city made an important decision back in 1970 or so to add landscaping and to slow traffic flow on Mass Street with the sawtooth parking scheme, at a time when many downtowns, including Atchison in our own neighborhood, were converting their main streets to pedestrian malls. The Lawrence compromise — allowing car traffic but enhancing the pedestrian experience — has served us extremely well. Like any compromise, none of the players get everything they want, but all get enough to satisfy their main concerns. As the community ages, and as we find alternatives to the personal automobile, I expect that the downtown parking experience will continue to adapt.