Downtowns and parking issues always seem to go hand in hand. It’s not just Kent, it’s everywhere I’ve ever worked or even traveled to for that matter. What makes downtowns feel like a breath of fresh air for consumers is the charm and unique setting created by decades old buildings, streets and alleys that were not designed to maximize the parking experience. Instead of big box retail and malls with acres of asphalt parking spread out in front of the buildings, downtowns give you an entirely different, and more personalized, shopping experience.
The price of that unique experience also tends to lead to a bit more of a hunt for parking. Malls didn’t lay miles of pavement around a building for the fun of it; they knew that Americans love their cars and consumers valued convenience above all else. In contrast, downtowns were spaces designed to create a vibrant, dynamic and aesthetically pleasing shopping experience first; parking was secondary.
The challenge today is consumers seem to expect both the personalized shopping experience of downtowns with the convenience of mall style parking. This is the tension of most downtown retailers. Customers want their cake and be able to eat it too. The days of a downtown parker walking a block after parking seem to be gone. People want ready made spaces right in front of where they want to go because that’s what they get in strip malls.
Retrofitting mall style parking into historic downtowns like Kent is tough. It takes finding enough land to build a parking garage on, which in downtowns comes at a premium and usually requires negotiating with many different owners who don’t usually want to sell. And it’s expensive, averaging around $10,000 per parking space. Plus it has to not look like some giant concrete structure just landed in the middle of downtown with no connectivity with the look and feel of downtown. All of these things add up to a real challenge in Kent’s downtown.
I understand that at different times Kent has looked at possible downtown parking structures. Even today, the city is talking with the developer for the proposed Downtown Village project about parking garage issues. So I do expect more parking to be available in the next couple of years.
In the meantime, we do what we can with what we’ve got. I was not in Kent when the decision was originally made to put parking on the bridge downtown but despite the initial resistance to the concept, the neutral observer in me says it seems to be working. I’ve started recording the number of cars parked on the bridge every time I go downtown and so far I’m averaging 3-4, and that covers weekends, daytime and nighttime. To me the best measure of whether parking works is whether people use it and in this case people are.
I have asked the city engineer to look at the safety barrels and see if he could come up with something that is more consistent with the look and feel of an historic downtown but still protects the public. The rendering below is what I asked him to see if he could make happen. I can’t make any promises given our finances but at least we’re trying to see if we can do better.