By Don Shor
Over the last few days we’ve been treated to some discussion of basic principles of urban planning. We’ve seen great illustrations of how to make a downtown area more walkable and more accessible. But as I’ve been looking at those pictures, I keep thinking, “Hm, I have a parking lot, and I kind of need one. I didn’t know that was a bad thing.” Hibbert Lumber has a parking lot that gets a lot of use from the contractors and homeowners who shop there, and Davis Ace wants to add some more parking on an under-utilized part of their property. Everybody loves to hate parking lots. And nearly everybody uses them.
Going carless is considered the ultimate admirable goal of any good Davisite. We shouldn’t need those parking lots, right? Well, that’s true. Except for old people, young families, people doing home and yard improvement projects, people with pets, people with complicated schedules, etc. Some might say that going carless is kind of a luxury of people who have plenty of time and limited constraints on their mobility. My guess is that even the mayor has a friend with a truck he needs to borrow a favor from now and then. Bike mode share of 25% may be an official goal somewhere, but I guarantee it isn’t going to be how 25% of my customers will arrive, ready to take home shade trees, bags of planting mix, and flats of vegetable starts.
There’s nothing new about any of the urban planning concepts being presented. I took some courses in urban planning here at UCD in the 1970’s out of interest in the subject and as context for some of my landscape architecture courses. UCD happened to have an outstanding professor in that field, Dr. Seymour Gold. Much of what is being discussed now is grounded in principles that were being articulated by Dr. Gold and others back then. Build at the human scale. Plan for people to live downtown. Mix retail, commercial, and housing.
One key principle of those classes was defining urban areas and how they interact with their surrounding population centers. Metropolitan areas grade from urban to suburban to exurban, with differing population densities, employment centers, and lifestyles. Really, the downtown of Davis is not a typical urban center. Many of the principles being illustrated apply more readily to very dense urban cores that are parts of larger metropolitan areas, downtown areas that serve as anchors to large suburban satellite developments, often with large numbers of workers commuting in each day. In such areas, just as one example, parking fees can be significant sources of revenue.
Davis is, at best, a miniature version of that. Yes, it seems dense and moderately congested at times. The demand for parking continues to increase. But anybody who has spent time in a true urban center would consider the traffic situation in Davis to be pretty tame. Our inward-bound commuters go straight to campus, not downtown. So not every urban planning principle is going to have applicability to what amounts to a small semi-rural city without suburbs. Some stores are going to need on-site parking. And any fee structure will have to be supplemented by other revenue sources in order to provide extra parking, if that is the goal.
More to the point, any urban planner is likely to agree that there is a gulf between principle and practice, and that the bridge over that gulf is acknowledging the facts on the ground. Every situation is different and planning should recognize and adjust to that.
Transit in Davis is uniquely tied to the university, with ASUCD providing the main bus service. Unitrans will work with the city, but attempts at shuttle services in the past have petered out due to lack of demand. It will be a challenge to integrate better and more efficient transit options for people visiting downtown. Trolleys and shuttles are pipedreams that simply don’t have the funding base or demand locally.
The demographics of the population are unusual: Davis is skewing both younger and older than nearby cities. That affects the type of retail provided and the nature of how people avail themselves of those stores. For the student-age shoppers, bike access should certainly be a priority. For the increasing number of senior citizens, it’s important to realize that they will choose to drive elsewhere if they cannot drive to the stores they want to shop at, or if they can’t park near them. Merchants and the city will lose revenues.
The nature of the existing retail will be a factor in how well changes in traffic flow will work, and how well they will be received by merchants and customers. If a city has a lot of little specialty shoppes, drawing customers regionally, it may be more amenable to the plaza-like pedestrian concepts that are often put forth as ideal. But there will also be businesses that primarily serve the residents, and those may have different requirements based on their product mix.
Davis has a strong downtown compared to nearby cities. We are fortunate to have a lot of specialty businesses along with an increasing number of restaurants. Our planning principles should strive to keep that downtown strong. We also have some solid retailers with long histories, businesses that provide reliable sales tax revenues and provide much-needed products and services.
Davis Ace Hardware and Hibbert Lumber have been serving the community for decades. Like my own business, they require access for large delivery trucks, often double-semi’s that unload via forklift. We are talking about several such deliveries each week. Each of those businesses, like mine, primarily serves customers who arrive by auto or truck and who need reasonable access to the delivery gates so they can take away their products. Housewares, appliances, lumber, landscape plants, bags of compost and fertilizer, doors, furniture, and numerous other large and bulky products require ready access.
Until there is a sea change across our society and economy in how goods are delivered and distributed, the personal automobile or truck is going to be how those things get home. And those businesses simply aren’t amenable to a park-and-walk solution to customer access for much of their product lines. They need parking lots, and they pretty much need them on site if the city is not going to provide them reasonably close to their storefronts.
We would do well to avoid harming key downtown anchor businesses. There are parts of the downtown where pedestrian and bike access can be prioritized. There are certainly many ways downtown parking can be improved; that has been studied and recommendations have been put forth. But due to the nature of our businesses, some of us need the inelegantly named “parking craters” because that’s how our customers come and buy stuff from us. Such parking areas should certainly be attractive, be shaded by trees or solar panels, and not detract from the ambience of the pedestrian spaces. But any changes to parking policies and any review of on-site parking should consider the impact on the businesses that are here right now, and should minimize harm to the existing retailers.
Don Shor owns a retail nursery located on Fifth Street, outside of the downtown.