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Commentary: Downtown St. Louis doesn't need more parking

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: September 19, 2008 - In an automobile-friendly city such as St. Louis, it's difficult to argue with developers -- or the city -- and contend that parking is too abundant. But to be a walkable, pedestrian-friendly city, a curb is needed on the introduction of new parking to the once-dense central corridor of St. Louis. This includes parking garages.

Earlier this month, Mayor Francis Slay lauded longtime downtown resident Thompson Coburn LLP for deciding to remain in the central business district rather than heading for Clayton. With fellow downtown law firm Armstrong Teasdale saying it would move to the county, very few looked askance at the $700,000 in incentives Thompson Coburn is set to get.

And no one talked about a $15 million, 360-space parking garage that state financing is to help build on the site of the U.S. Bank plaza on Locust Street. Preservationists will recall that this parcel, on the northwest corner of Locust and Seventh streets, was once home to the grand Ambassador Building, demolished in 1995 after years of vacancy.

But the garage may have street-level retail spaces. Isn't that better than what's there?

Fair question. But the answer is an emphatic no.

The Thompson Coburn garage will be born in a downtown that witnessed, in 2004, demolition of the Century Building two blocks to the west for a parking garage to aid the Old Post Office. A look at the Downtown St. Louis Partnership's parking map reveals a glut of spaces around Locust and 7th. DowntownStLouis.org boasts that the city's core business district has 46,000 off-street parking spots. That same website also brags about how cheap parking downtown is: an average of $5.31 a day. That's a bad sign for an urban area and a good sign of an oversupply.

You see, the deadest downtowns have the best, cheapest, most available parking. An international study by Peter Newman and Jeffrey Kenworthy (1999) analyzed downtown parking levels in 32 cities. They were hunting for a correlation between a city's livability and amount of parking in downtowns. One could hypothesize that, the less of the built environment of a downtown area that remains, and the more parking that has replaced it, the less active it is; the less safe it is; the less attractive it is; and so on.

Newman and Kenworthy arrived at a ratio: 200 parking spaces per 1,000 employees downtown was the upper limit of a "livable" city. To breach the ratio brought about familiar symptoms of a moribund downtown: crime, abandonment, pollution, et cetera. Los Angeles -- a widely panned downtown until recently -- had 524 spaces per 1,000 employees. Detroit, similarly challenged, had 473. Chicago and New York, true 24-hour downtowns, reported 96 and 75, respectively. If we accept that downtown St. Louis has 46,000 parking spaces and 88,000 workers, then St. Louis's ratio is 541 spaces per 1,000 employees, higher than LA and Detroit. Chicago has around 360,000 downtown office workers, but it offers the same number of parking spaces as our downtown!

Thompson Coburn does not need a parking garage on this site. Downtown St. Louis' last problem is parking insufficiency.

If St. Louis' long-ailing downtown is to escape the doldrums, the city needs to encourage a true pedestrian-friendly environment, with filled storefronts and people living and working atop them. St. Louis is lucky to retain what it has of the architecture of the past.

As long as over-accommodating for automobiles is the official line of city planning, street side shops and cafes will still avoid anchoring the unsightly corporate campuses of downtown (and their "plazas"). Lifeless streets will remain the norm.

The haphazard or absent planning relegates St. Louis to a lower tier it does not deserve. The city should scour nearby garages -- perhaps the ludicrous Ninth Street Garage that replaced the Century Building -- and offer Thompson Coburn spaces. The two-block walk to Locust and 7th is, according to Google Maps, about 800 feet. The real answer to this "parking problem" is community pride: loving this city enough to know that the last thing it needs is more amenities for cars, and that, if the state is going to finance construction on that site, let it be a residential/office tower befitting a downtown.

This is not to say that simply placing a moratorium on parking garages will prove a panacea for downtown; only that each new set of a couple hundred parking spaces represents that many blows to the potential vitality, livability of one of America's great cities.

Matthew Mourning is master's student at the University of New Orleans' Urban and Regional Planning Program specializing in community development and historic preservation. He grew up in the Bevo neighborhood and plans to return to the my hometown upon completion of my degree. Check out his blog on historic preservation, urban planning, and miscellaneous topics in St. Louis, called Dotage - St. Louis, Missouri. http://stldotage.blogspot.com

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