Archive | July 2010

Young Professionals and Downtown are like PB&J

Like many iconic duos in our culture, young adults and downtown seem to go hand in hand. Twenty- and 30-somethings are known, at least stereotypically, to be more adventurous with real estate, to pioneer in the arts, and to enjoy a night life that best exists in an urban center. But, what really attracts young professionals to a downtown area?

I ran across the results from a study of its young professionals in Aiken, South Carolina, a town of about 29,000 residents and home to one of USC’s campuses. Among its leading factors for why YPs choose to live there, friendly people, short commute times, and an aesthetically pleasing environment are at the top of the list. Surprisingly, being a family-oriented community was also an important factor in attracting them to Aiken, while the area’s social opportunities and arts organizations were less of a priority.

A similar study in Wichita, Kansas, found that safety, a healthy local economy, and affordable housing were among the most important elements of a livable community. Like Aiken, Wichita’s study showed that arts and nightlife were only somewhat important as a measure of livability.

A national report by Next Generation Consulting ranked U.S. cities considered best fit for young professionals. At the top of the list were small towns, Fort Collins, Colorado and Charleston, South Carolina, mid-sized cities, Madison, Wisconsin and Minneapolis, Minnesota, and large cities, San Francisco and Seattle.

But, where does that leave Waco, Texas? Well, it didn’t make the NGC rankings this time, but that doesn’t mean the city is devoid of young professionals. In fact, more than 450 members make up the city’s young professionals’ group, which meets regularly to network and socialize with like-minded individuals.

Waco is not like Aiken or Wichita, nor is it like the many cities in NGC’s list. So, what makes a 25-year-old single guy or girl move here? Where do they come from, how long do they stay, and why might they eventually leave? The curiosity is enough that I’ve approached the Board of Waco Young Professionals to find answers to these, and many other, questions. I’ll keep you posted…


A Brief Look at the Plan for Greater Downtown

I am holding in my hands the draft of Downtown Waco’s Master Plan. This may sound nerdy (and it probably is), but this is one of the most exciting pieces of literature to cross my desk in awhile. Not that it’s written in stunning prose or poetry, but because it speaks, in concrete form, to the very sort of things I’ve imagined for Waco since I arrived here two years ago. In fact, some of the topics in my blog are dealt with directly in this 130-plus page manual.

During the public visioning workshops last October, several themes emerged which are addressed in the Plan; namely, activating the riverfront and Elm Avenue corridors, improving transit, developing arts attractions, adding diverse housing options, and creating a lively and safe environment for pedestrians. In addition, the plan details methods for improving the sustainability of Greater Downtown, both fiscally and environmentally.

The most notable projects mentioned in the Plan include a large plaza between Elm and Bridge Streets along MLK Boulevard, a mixed-use landmark building on the SE corner of University Parks and Franklin, and connecting Heritage Square to the riverfront by opening space between the Hilton and Waco Convention Center as a pedestrian walkway.

Other ideas of interest include the addition of bike lanes along Fourth Street, Fifth Street, and University Parks Drive, as well as the transformation of Mary Street into a “festival street,” which means it would be designed to facilitate outdoor events such as a farmers’ market or arts exhibition. Further, the Plan includes a discussion of transportation options, from expanding current DASH service to facilitating passenger rail service that would connect San Antonio to Dallas-Fort Worth Airport via our downtown, and everything in between.

While visionary in nature, this guide is also practical, mapping out specific action steps to achieve development goals in order of priority. It lists possible funding sources, regulatory changes, and even a new Downtown Development Corporation which would serve as the organizational backbone of the Plan’s implementation.

The draft of the Greater Downtown Master Plan can be downloaded here.

The Problem of Parking, Part 3

In the previous segment I discussed the option of a pay-for-parking environment to alleviate the effects that abundant off-street parking has created in our cities. Because paid parking is unpopular with most citizens, however, implementing shared parking facilities and unbundling them from real estate is a good compromise that reduces the parking spaces needed to accommodate drivers.

Encouraging shared parking not only provides a more efficient way of getting people to their destinations, it also provides environmental benefits. Reducing the amount of paved area, especially parking lots, allows rainwater to penetrate the soil naturally rather than run off into storm systems which often contribute to flooding. In addition, Chris McGowan of the Greater Waco Chamber of Commerce notes that storm water runoff from impervious surfaces “collects pollutants such as heavy metals, oils, grease, pesticides, fertilizers and other toxic substances along the way and carries them into rivers and lakes via the drainage system.” This deteriorates our drinking water supply and is harmful to many types of wildlife.

Parking structures, rather than parking lots, provide another opportunity to express this newfound eco-consciousness: green roofs. In cities around the world, parking garages are now being built with its upper deck devoted to plantings which provide clean air, reduce flooding, help mitigate the heat island effect, and in some cases, serve as recreation space for residents and visitors. In both Nashville and Houston, for example, below-grade parking decks have been topped with full-scale parks. Discovery Green in Houston is a 12-acre park complete with a playground, pond, water features, a performance stage, even restaurants, all above a 650-space parking garage. Nashville Public Square is smaller, at 2.25 acres, but tops a 5-level parking garage and 57,000 gallon rainwater storage tank.

Photo: Discovery Green, located in Downtown Houston, is actually a green roof with 650 parking spaces below.

The message to take away here is that parking cannot continue to ravage our land for the sake of providing convenience. It is costly to our wallets, to our ecological system, and to our quality of life. It should be treated, rather, as a valuable amenity that cities can provide as a component of a healthy, comprehensive urban fabric. Parking should be efficient, light on the land, and paid for by those who use it.

The Problem of Parking, Part 2

In the last post I scratched the surface of the complexities involved in parking requirements and why they simply don’t work in real life. Free parking isn’t free, and the costs go beyond just financial. The livability of our neighborhoods declines as buildings get swallowed up in expansive parking lots. Every building gets more and more spread out and, while the attempt is to make life more convenient for us by increasing available parking, we end up driving more and more miles to do the things we do.

I started receiving a magazine a few months ago which is geared toward professionals in the parking industry. I barely knew there was a parking industry, but nevertheless, there are many companies out there working to improve parking technologies, facilities, and regulations. Perhaps the magazine’s writers are biased, but they often come back to the issue of parking supply and demand. They would argue that the price and location of all parking, both on-street and off-street, should have a price determined by its demand. The rule of thumb is that curbside (metered) parking should be priced such that one parking space would become available along a block at any given time. The higher the demand for curbside parking, the higher its cost. Then, garage parking and other off-street parking would cost a little less.

Arguing a shift toward paid parking won’t win friends or elections, which is why this typically only happens in the densest of cities. In larger cities, it’s not uncommon to pay more for a day of parking than for your lunch, while, here in Downtown Waco, I’m not even sure where you would go to pay for parking.

Aside from simply asking drivers to pay when they park, there is another solution to the parking problem. Shared parking is one possibility, meaning that a single parking facility would service multiple buildings. Because most business types require parking only at certain times, their facilities are usually left vacant at times when they could be utilized by others. For example, a lot or garage that serves professional offices during the daytime hours could easily serve a movie theater or apartment complex where most parking occurs in the evening hours. In this scenario, fewer overall parking spaces are needed, thus freeing up valuable real estate for other uses. Unbundling parking from buildings could also reduce real estate prices for businesses, allowing smaller, local businesses to open and thrive, all while maintaining nearby parking.

How do we make shared parking a reality? Stay tuned for part 3…

The Problem of Parking, Part 1

If I asked you how many parking spaces a hotel should pave with its building, how would you answer? Your first instinct might be to include at least one parking space per hotel room, plus maybe a few more for registration, employees, and so on. Seems logical, right?

But, what about people who are visiting the hotel for a conference, or maybe a wedding reception? Would that change the number of parking spaces you’d suggest? Maybe some hotel guests came in two vehicles rather than one. Or, perhaps the hotel restaurant is a popular spot even for those not actually staying at the hotel. That might increase the number of parking spaces needed. Then again, maybe not.

How do you account, then, for travelers who don’t bring a vehicle with them at all? Maybe they flew into the area from out of town and took a shuttle to the hotel. Maybe a family drove in together, but used two hotel rooms. Now, how many spaces should that hotel provide?

The point is, the answer to providing parking isn’t obvious or clear cut, whether the development in question is a hotel, apartment building, or a shopping center. As you’ve probably experienced in driving around your own city, most developers—either because of zoning requirements or faulty math—overestimate the parking needed for a site, leaving a wasteland of blacktop most days of the year.

How did it get this way? According to Donald Shoup in his book, The High Cost of Free Parking, the quick shift to travel by car created an immense need for off-street parking, shifting regulations so that new developments would require built-in parking for its users. Then, in a constant battle to keep citizens happy, minimum parking requirements have grown ever larger to ensure every car has a spot.

Shoup argues, however, that the drastic increase in free parking is, in fact, quite costly. Developers have no choice but to pass along the cost of paving and striping the spaces along to the building’s tenants who, in turn, pass that cost along to its customers. We pay for “free” parking in every gallon of milk, every value meal, and every piece of clothing we buy.

How do we decide the number of parking spaces a particular building requires? The Planning Advisory Service provides a chart of guidelines depending on land use, and some of the requirements are downright silly. For example, a nunnery requires 1 space per 10 nuns, and a swimming pool requires 1 space per 2,500 gallons of water. Seriously? Is this the way we study parking demand?

In the same book, Shoup provides an example of how predetermined parking metrics can be a long way off from the reality of parking demand. Several Home Depot stores were studied and, even at one of its busiest times of year, the number of parking spaces required for a building of its size was up to double the actual demand determined in the study. Put plainly, current standards could require a Home Depot to pay to provide hundreds of parking spaces it will never need.

Is there a solution to this parking predicament? Part 2 is still to come…