A blog for better streets and public spaces in Portland, Maine.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Parking is for losers (and the East End is losing)

Abandoned parking lot, by Ikhlasul Amal.

Bell interviewed two business owners whose shops and restaurants neighbor the proposed garage, which is being developed under questionable financial assumptions by Opechee Construction of New Hampshire.

Both business owners rejected the conventional wisdom that more parking is good for economic development. "Nobody wants to walk around in a neighborhood full of parking lots," said Samantha Lindgren, co-owner of Rabelais. "It's discouraging," agrees Nancy Pugh, co-owner of Duckfat and Hugo's, two of Portland's more successful restaurants.

Bell also reveals that the City is paying $64,000 a year to subsidize a half-empty high-rise parking garage right across the street. That's because the City's former Economic Development Director, Jack Lufkin, agreed to guaranteed lease payments to help finance that garage at the peak of the real estate bubble.

View Downtown Portland Parking Lots in a larger map

Map showing the proposed new parking garage (center), across India Street from the new, city-subsidized Ocean Gateway Garage (center right), and other neighborhood parking lots and garages in red.

Amazingly, Lufkin stands by that deal to this day, claiming that "the lack of parking is among the biggest obstacles to development in Portland."

This is pure bullshit. There are numerous factors that are keeping developers from raising new buildings downtown. The most fundamental hurdle is the lack of potential tenants willing to pay rents that would be necessary to finance new construction.

Of course, this problem is closely related to the high cost of construction and land in downtown Portland, which are both artificially inflated due to City Hall's minimum parking requirements. The fact that so much real estate in downtown Portland is already occupied by parking lots makes the remaining land more expensive to buy and build on.

In other words, it's not the lack of parking that's impeding development; it's the fact that our city already wastes way too much real estate and money on parking quotas and subsidies.

But don't take my word for it. In 1998, Philadelphia Federal Reserve Bank economist Richard Voith pointed out that downtown areas have a competitive advantage in their walkable neighborhoods and cultural amenities. Building lots of cheap parking, he argued, "is unlikely to dramatically improve a downtown’s competitive position because the suburbs have a comparative advantage in land uses that demand a lot of space, such as parking lots and roads."

In other words, don't destroy an emerging urban neighborhood like the one around India Street by trying to make it compete with a strip mall hellhole like the one just over the bridge in Falmouth Foreside (where, for the record, an abundance of cheap parking has not rescued the town from a blight of abandoned box stores).

Lufkin was laid off in 2007 and now works for Gorham Savings Drive-Thru Bank, where he's probably bullying small business borrowers into sinking their limited capital into more asphalt instead of in their payrolls, equipment, or actual growth.

But wait! Here's one other out-of-towner who thinks that giving over half of the neighborhood to parking garages is a good idea:
When it comes to attracting development, there's no such thing as too much parking, said Nicholas Iselin, director of development and construction for Intercontinental Real Estate Corp., which owns the garage today."
Sure, if I were getting a $64,000 check every year from city taxpayers for an empty parking garage, I might feel the same way. Why not tear down the entire neighborhood for taxpayer-subsidized parking garages?

Back in the real world, it's hard to see how this new garage is going to make any financial sense for Opechee, the developers, when the city can't even give the stuff away right across the street.

Of course, they haven't started construction yet, so they and their financial lenders still have some time to come to their senses...

Friday, August 13, 2010

Friday Miscellaney

Monday, August 9, 2010

Stra├čenbahn in Portland, 1916

A German Wikipedia contributor has made a gorgeous schematic map of Portland, Maine's streetcar (or Stra├čenbahn, in German) network, as it was in 1916:

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Raise the gas tax? Not if it's going to Augusta

A local transportation planner recently shared this column from Car and Driver magazine, in which a motorist calls for higher gas taxes to help promote more efficiency in automobiles. He argues, convincingly, that a higher gas tax is a more honest and effective way to wean us off of foreign oil than the federal government's fuel efficiency standards.

Others point out that raising the gas tax can also help repair our country's crumbling infrastructure, and that letting our roads deteriorate is far more expensive than paying a few extra cents at the pump.

All this is true. However, raising the Maine's gas tax will remain a political impossibility for as long as the Maine DOT continues to mismanage our gas tax revenues and our roads.

Here's why: it's awfully hard to justify asking a commuter in rural Maine to cough up an extra $100 every year to help pay for highway widenings in Portland, when Portlanders themselves don't want them. That's the main reason I would happily join the Tea Partiers to reject any new gas tax proposal that would direct new revenue into MDOT's grubby hands.

The other, larger problem is that gas taxes highlight the urban/rural divide. My wife and I might pay $35-$40 a year in Maine gas taxes. We're middle-class, comfortably employed Portlanders who just don't drive much (and when we do, we frequently save a buck by filling up in New Hampshire). A 10 cent increase in the gas tax would cost us less than $8 a year.

But what about the poor guy in Vassalboro who needs to commute 60 miles a day in his inefficient old pickup truck? He's paying over $500 a year in state gas taxes already, and a 5 cent increase would cost him $100 more. And again, to what purpose? He's seeing MDOT pour millions into the widening of Exit 7 while the roads and bridges in his hometown are falling apart.

My point is this: if transportation planners want more tax revenue, they need to stop spending millions of dollars on projects that piss people off, and start offering something of actual value.

That having been said, I'm confident that the municipalities of Greater Portland would willingly vote to pay a local-option gas tax if it were tied to a binding commitment to use the new funds for good, productive projects, like basic maintenance, improved transit, and bike/ped safety improvements.

Atlanta, Georgia just did something similar, and here's why it succeeded: it avoids the political poison of a regressive tax that disproportionately affects rural residents, it gives towns and regions more local control, and it funds infrastructure projects that people actually want (as opposed to projects that have been dreamed up in the ninth circle of Augusta).

To get there, Maine's legislators would need to pass enabling legislation, while local transportation planners draw up a politically popular plan for the additional revenue, such that local voters would actually approve the self-tax.

So who wants to get the ball rolling?

Friday, August 6, 2010

Can we do this here?

One of the Peninsula Transit Study's recommendations was for the city to adjust parking rates according to the time of day. San Francisco is about to try doing this on a broad scale, and the city's put together a good overview of how it would work:

SFpark Overview from SFpark on Vimeo.

Aside from making it easier for drivers to find a space on every block, and decreasing congestion, the bigger benefit from this program should be a more efficient allocation of scarce urban space. Drivers will spend less time searching for parking, and more time at the meter, generating more revenue for the city. And businesses will enjoy increased patronage from more customers.

In the longer term, data on parking rates and utilization in different neighborhoods will give planners and developers a better idea of how much new parking should be added with new development, instead of relying on arbitrary zoning codes that were developed in the 1960s. That would lead to lower costs of renting housing and office space in the city.

Of course, in order to implement such a program, Portland would need a business-savvy, innovative manager for its acres of public parking real estate. Personally, I'm not holding my breath.