Parking isn’t the way to go at Canalside - The Buffalo News
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Parking isn’t the way to go at Canalside

Maybe someday we will get over our parking obsession. That day, apparently, isn’t today.

The parking monster has again raised its downtown-corroding head. A recent story about progress at Canalside included a state official voicing the need for “a big, big plan for parking.” There’s a proposal for yet another Canalside-area parking ramp. which – mercifully – remains on hold.

As far as I’m concerned, “on hold” is where the ramp ought to stay.

We don’t want parking eating even more of the Canalside waterfront than it already does. Especially when we don’t need it.

It would be nice to see more progressive thinking around here, particularly in the wake of last month’s New Urbanism conference. It’s too bad that more public officials didn’t hear what the urban experts had to say. If they had, they would stop lurching at “parking” as the default solution for every destination. They would understand that the less of downtown we sacrifice to parking, the better downtown will be. And, finally, they would stop using “parking” as a synonym for “access.”

“It’s sad that we still think this way,” said George Grasser. “No great city has this sort of parking abundance.”

Grasser is the local real estate attorney who co-chaired the Congress for the New Urbanism conference. He all but pleaded with public officials to attend. Most didn’t. Which is why there is talk of more parking at Canalside, when there – as Sabres fans know – already are thousands of spots within a 5-minute walk.

There is a six-level parking ramp connected to First Niagara Center; 460 parking spaces beneath the soon-vacant One Seneca Tower and a three-level ramp on Washington Street – plus vast stretches of nearby surface lots. The nearly done HarborCenter – with a five-level parking ramp at its base – will add 850 more spaces to the Canalside mix. A portion of all of it is available during the week. Nearly all of it is empty on weekends and weekdays after 5 o’clock.

And we need more parking?

“There’s tons of parking already there,” Grasser said. “And the problems that come with it.”

The ramps and surface lots come at the expense of buildings, potential buildings, shops, stores, bars, restaurants and green space. Those are the lures that draw people downtown – not parking lots.

Granted, the best destination isn’t much good if people can’t get there. But in healthy downtowns – think, say, Toronto – parking is a last resort, not the first option for access. “Access” includes a range of ways to get somewhere, from cars to bikes to buses. Canalside’s options include – happily for us – a $500 million Metro Rail line that runs to it, through the downtown spine.

The more downtown waterfront we sacrifice to parking, the less appealing it becomes – and the more we compromise its future. On-site parking lots discourage people from walking a few blocks. Those walkers are potential customers for the coming shops, bars and restaurants that we hope will float at Canalside.

“The more on-site parking you have,” Grasser said, “the worse it is for retail.”

Worse indeed. It’s a vicious cycle: The more parking there is, the greater the demand for it. As Andrés Duany and Jeff Speck wrote in “Suburban Nation,” the de facto New Urbanism bible: “Building additional parking lots causes more people to drive downtown, which … creates demand for yet more parking lots.”

In other words, building more parking lots doesn’t solve the problem – it feeds it.

Sam Hoyt of the Erie Canal Harbor board told me that “there are no plans at this point” for more Canalside parking. Indeed, he said we may soon see a welcome reversal of fortune: New buildings on current parking lots instead of our predilection for demolishing buildings for parking. Given the shifting landscape, and our historic upside-down parking perspective, it would be nice if Erie Canal Harbor officials reached out to urban parking/transportation experts. They missed the urban gurus at last month’s CNU conference, but Grasser would be happy to pass along a few names.

It’s a simple plea: Stop us, before we blunder again.


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