Sunday, October 31, 2010

Downtown Dallas parking

Inevitably, every five years or so, the City of Dallas commissions a downtown master plan study. Always, it focuses on the latest in planning at that time, more office, greater car access, more residential units, more street scenes, etc. Also just as inevitable, the study ignores the effects of parking, perhaps the most important aspect of any urban study. Arguably, no other aspect has a greater impact on urban form than parking.

Why am I bringing this up? Well, I have done my own parking inventory. To the defense of those prior plans, doing a parking inventory is difficult. I have been doing since the start of summer. It is not complete, and likely will never be complete. Counting public spaces is the easiest for access. Many public buildings have their own spaces, some of which are easier to enter than others. Even more difficult, a lot of government buildings are shut to all but those who have access cards. And since downtown is in constant flux, surface numbers are constantly changing.

Even the count itself might be off, but only by a little. Counting spaces over and over again is monotonous and ripe for miscounting. However, any errors I have made are minimal.

I chronicled everything onto Google maps. Since it isn't quite a GIS capable application, I had to separate them into different land uses. While the information contains more than just parking, it isn't anything that isn't already known somewhere else. At least the parking information is likely to be unique. If anyone has it, it is unknown to me and to several others who would know where to find that info.

First, here's surface parking, which contain over 22,000 spaces.
Surface 1
Surface 2
Surface 3
Surface 4
Next up, garage spaces, which contain the most spaces in downtown at just shy of 30,000.

Office spaces is the third highest space holder at just shy of 10,000.

Government and similar institutions comprise 5,500 spaces.

With new residential development comes new residential parking, or roughly 4,000 spaces.

And finally a grouping of the other land uses add another 4,000 spaces. And yes, in Dallas, even the parks have parking, or more accurately, they are underground garages with green space on top.
Parks and Plazas
Retail and Misc.
And perhaps the most overlooked part of any parking system, and arguably the most important is on-street parking. Since it isn't Google Maps friendly, I have nothing to post. It is in Excel format. There are less than 2,500 spaces in the 1.3 sq mile downtown area. When you analyze the locations, you see that the major streets have surprisingly little. More on that later.

Now to the commentary. There is an over abundance of surface parking, the antithesis of an urban area. The dead zones created by surface parking is incredible. In many ways, they create a de facto boundary, clearly delineating one zone from another. It is no accident that the vibrant areas tend to be without surface parking in large numbers. But make no mistake, even small amounts can have bad effects. Large amounts are disastrous.

In order to get to healthy proportions in downtown, that number needs to be one-third of its current total. The positive news from such an over supply is that redevelopment is easy on a surface lot. However, given the tract record of urban development in Dallas, it doesn't mean it will be a good addition to the urban environment. Without any comprehensive guidelines on what is good versus bad, downtown will see just as many bad addition like Hunt Towers and the Commerce side of the Merc as we will of the good development like Third Rail Lofts and One Arts Plaza. Seeing the poor development of the south side of Uptown around Lower McKinney, I won't hold my breath.

Garages, like development, can be hit or miss. Depending upon design, they can be conducive to the urban area or just as easily rip it apart. The garage catty corner from the new Main Street Garden park is a great example of a bad one. At the street level, it is pitiful. There is nothing that engages the pedestrian and makes the entire block feel longer to traverse than should be in a good urban area. There is no mix of uses, unless you count the car wash in the interior or the dry cleaners at the skywalk level (I don't). Like surface parking, this garage creates an artificial boundary, signifying the end of the Main Street District.

Meanwhile, at Main and Akard, just a few blocks away sits another public garage, although you'd never know it. At the ground level is a CVS, Jason's Deli and the vehicular entrance, the only indication there is a garage there. Above the car park are residential units. If you were to look up at the garage section, you'd see the design was coherent with the rest of the buildings. In other words, it looks like a building, not a monolithic garage.

The final component of a public parking plan are the on-street spaces. No other parking in the automobile age is as vital to an urban are than on-street for many reasons. The convenience of quickly finding a space is important for retailers and shoppers. Stopping, heading in the store, purchasing you product and leaving is the bread and butter of on-street parking that simply isn't there for off-street except in the most immediate spaces. Even still is hard to beat the pulling up to the curb when you have to pull into the lot and pay.

The second benefit is extended to pedestrians. On-street parking provides a buffer between cars and sidewalk-users. It isn't comfortable walking next to several one-ton machines going on at 40 miles-an-hour.

A final primary benefit comes in the aesthetic. A street full of parked cars appear to have more activity than streets without. And in a common theme of urban areas, activity begets more activity.

In downtown Dallas, on-street parking is too scarce. Were I in charge, I could easily double the amount of street parking. They are rare for two main reasons. For every property that wants vehicular access, a curb cut is needed. When you add a curb cut, you have to eliminate at least two meters. And that's just for one entry point. It is more common to have multiple entry points, which eliminates several spaces. In the eastern end of downtown, there are several small property owners who have surface lots, even adjacent to another small surface lot. Each has its own curb cut which means on-street parking is rare in that part of town.

Heck, were I a surface parking lot operator, I would try to have as many curb cuts as possible. That way you are more likely to park and give me money in my lot than park on the street. There are many lots that have entrances every few feet. In some instances, these entrances are no longer in use and have spaces on the private side, but the street still has no meter. Sadly these practices just encourages nobody to park at all downtown, leaving the area empty.

The other big player in a lack of street parking is the traffic engineer. Their ilk are primarily concerned with one thing, moving as many cars as possible in as little time as possible. There are several streets where on-street parking has been removed from one side. And, at a time when there are the most car users, the remaining on-street parking is outlawed.

Think about that for a minute. In rush hour, where there are the most cars and some drivers need a convenient place to quickly park, the spaces don't allow parking. The City actually has a policy that encourages people to NOT spend money downtown. Need a gallon of milk? Well don't stop at the convenient 7-11 on Commerce Street on your way home to the suburbs. Spend your money there, not in downtown Dallas.

These traffic engineers want to keep adding lanes, while simultaneously leaving these lanes free from anything but moving cars. Very few retailers are going to go anywhere without some convenient parking spaces for prospective customers. Streets like Pearl or Griffin, which have six to seven lanes have very little meters.

Until this relationship between encouraging off-street parking and discouraging on-street is fixed, the urban area will continue to suffer. While other people, like Donald Shoup, can effectively worry about pricing, Dallas is not there yet because there is not an ample supply of it. You can't price something right until you have an ample amount of it.

Which brings us back to the plans. None of the downtown Dallas plans have really addressed this issue, including the current plan. You want to encourage retail, you need to give them convenient parking. In an urban area, you can't depend solely upon pedestrian traffic, just as you can't depend solely on auto traffic. You need a mix. It is hard to get that without on-street parking. You want to encourage more street activity, more residential and more visitors, on-street is an added component of that. Any plan that wants those occurrences, but doesn't address the parking issue will ultimately come up short in accomplishing those goals.

1 comment:

Courtney said...

Very informative post! Guess I should listen to you more when you talk about this stuff, instead of tuning out. :)