By Michael Bisch
“Public parking spaces serving multiple uses can be expected to be better utilized, and serve more drivers, than private parking spaces serving a single building or business, which often sit vacant for much of the day and evening.” – City of Davis Community Development staff
All too often pundits and protagonists in our community conversations fail to provide proper context and fail to distinguish between the means and the ends. The result is generally a muddled mess of a debate. The conversation around the downtown parking in-lieu fee program is certainly no different. Parking in-lieu fees are not the end (and neither is another downtown parking structure). The city’s in-lieu fee program is a means. It is a means for advancing our community’s social, environmental and economic sustainability. In this particular instance, it is a means for achieving the following City Council goal:
- Build and Promote a Vibrant Downtown
This Tuesday evening, the Davis City Council will consider changes to the downtown parking in-lieu fee program. For those readers unfamiliar with the term, “parking in-lieu fee program,” this generally refers to governmental programs financially incentivizing developers, architects and urban planners working in tight urban environments to create more innovative and sustainable projects which forgo traditional onsite minimum parking requirements. The financial incentive typically comes in the form of a fee paid by the developer, which is cheaper than the cost of actually developing the parking onsite. In many cases, the incentive offered amounts to waiving the in-lieu fee entirely.
I’ve written this opinion piece to provide readers and policy-makers insight from the perspective of someone who has a multi-faceted, day-to-day, working knowledge of our downtown and its function as the city’s primary business district, art and entertainment district, shopping and dining district and social gathering place.
The term “parking in-lieu fee,” while technically accurate, is very misleading and misses the underlying purpose almost entirely. These programs are not parking management tools. They are social, environmental and economic sustainability tools. The city’s parking in-lieu fee program advisor, Walker Parking Consultants, accurately states:
“The effects of the amount at which a parking in-lieu fee is set are woven into a city’s planning, transportation, environmental, fiscal, development and economic development, and infrastructure policies. The setting of this rate is therefore only partly a technical exercise. It also reflects a city’s policy priorities and economic constraints of development in the future.”
It is for this reason that I was the sole member of the Downtown Parking Task Force to vote against Recommendation #19: Re-examine In-Lieu Fees and Procedures. The context for the re-examination of the program was all wrong (i.e. exclusively parking management).
Far more accurate descriptors for a “parking in-lieu fee” would be:
“Superior architecture bonus”
“Pedestrian streetscape enhancement incentive”
“Retail enhancement reward”
“Economic development bonus”
“Sustainable development inducement”
Parking in-lieu fee programs encourage development professionals to be innovative, to take financial risks, to design projects that advance community social, environmental and economic goals instead of settling for traditional, mediocre projects. Let there be no doubt…parking a redevelopment project onsite is the safe, traditional, mediocre route. The investors are happy, the lender is happy and the tenants are happy. But how do shoppers, diners, moviegoers and other downtown visitors feel about private parking lots scattered all about a downtown? Well, let’s ask the city’s form-based codes advisor, Opticos Design. Referring to small, private onsite parking lots as “parking mini craters,” they state:
“Mini parking craters are just as detrimental to a community as large ones, particularly to walkable urban neighborhoods, but they are also an opportunity.”
They go on to say:
“Well-designed compatible infill on these lots will make neighborhoods more vibrant and more walkable. This urban repair should be a goal for all neighborhood planning and coding projects.” [Emphasis added]
But, we don’t have to take Opticos’ word for it. We can take an informal survey right now. As you review these photos, give some thought to which of these projects make more efficient use of scarce air, water and land resources. Which of them provide more housing units, more retail and office space? Which of them enhance the pedestrian shopping experience and promote social interaction? I.e. which of them promote community sustainability?
Do you prefer the Roe Building (all or most of the parking off-site)?
Or the YFCU Building (all of the parking onsite)?
Do you prefer the Village Grill Building (all or most of the parking off-site)?
Or the Jack-In-Box (all of the parking onsite)?
Do you prefer the Chen Building (all or most of the parking off-site)?
Or the AT&T property (all of the parking onsite)?
Do you prefer The Lofts (all or most of the parking off-site)?
Or the Bank of America Building (all of the parking onsite)?
Do you prefer the Crepeville Building (all or most of the parking off-site)?
Or the Helmus Building (all of the parking onsite)?
I will be watching the City Council meeting with interest Tuesday evening as they discuss which of these projects they’d like to see more of in our downtown (or whether they’d like to see any more redevelopment projects at all). Will the Council encourage innovative, sustainable development projects or the more traditional type of development projects? And, just as importantly, will the Council adopt clear, effective policies to advance in their desired direction? We shall see.
-Michael Bisch is the owner of Davis Commercial Properties, a provider of commercial property management, leasing and brokerage services. He has served as a volunteer in a number of downtown-related community service organizations such as Davis Arts Alliance, Pathways to Employment and Davis Downtown.