Having written last week about a subject that prompted a contrary opinion (read to the right), I’m about to tackle another local subject with contrary opinions (read to the right).
Downtown parking is the lather/rinse/repeat of Platteville — some form of the problem comes up, the Common Council passes or changes ordinances, and it goes away, only to rear its ugly head like a Safety Yellow-painted phoenix, or perhaps vampire. (For those counting, there are three similes and one metaphor in this paragraph.)
I got an email saying, based on this space of last week, concluding that I don’t believe there is a parking problem downtown. Whether I wrote that or not, whether I think there’s a problem has less impact than whether downtown business owners believe there’s a parking problem. Since they obviously do, the city will continue to deal with this.
The pessimistic thought is that nothing really can be done to substantially improve parking in a downtown area designed in 1835, when the biggest issue was where to park horses. (That, and their, uh, emissions.) The subject of a parking ramp comes up repeatedly, but no one is jumping up to pay a seven-digit bill to build one, at a location no one is volunteering, for something not exactly compatible with an historic downtown.
That was one idea that came up in the downtown parking forum at Julie’s Da Vine Wine & Stein two weeks ago. (The forum was enlivened, in my case, by two apple ales, making me feel something like a Founding Father in a Colonial tavern, minus the wig, short pants, parchment and quill pen. Common Council meetings would be easier to endure with adult beverages.)
The business issue is that all downtown businesses are inevitably competing against businesses elsewhere in Platteville and outside Platteville for which ease of parking isn’t an issue. The distance between the front of the Walmart parking lot, for instance, may be farther than the distance from a particular parking space to a particular business, but the former is seen as easier in access, particularly if you have to drive around to find a spot downtown. If the city wants business downtown, the city has to deal with that reality.
The problem with the parking issue is that it inevitably sets off contrary forces against each other. Business customers have different parking needs, depending on the kind of business, from business employees, which have different parking needs from downtown residents. One area that needs improvement is signage, to point out to drivers where parking is available, but too many signs (whatever that means) mar Platteville’s historic downtown appearance (whatever that means). And those who own property outside downtown may rightly ask why they should have to help foot the bill for their downtown competitors’ parking. (Which gets to the whole subject of citizenship and collective civic responsibility, which requires more space, not to mention more apple ales.)
Another idea that came up there and has come up elsewhere has been returning Main Street to one-way traffic, as it was for about 50 years between routes of U.S. 151. I’m from Madison, which also has numerous one-way streets in the Isthmus and UW–Madison campus area. And yet in the five years I lived in Grant County after graduation, I drove down Main Street once that I remember, for our wedding photo. One-way streets are the most visitor-unfriendly traffic design possible, short of banning vehicles entirely.
Another idea I’m leery of is the creation of a city parking utility to enforce parking regulations. There is some value to at least a parking committee so that parking issues are dealt with in one place. However, a parking utility to deal with downtown parking inevitably will become a parking utility to deal with parking all over Platteville, including areas where parking isn’t really a problem. A parking utility requires money to operate, which the city really doesn’t have, so revenue will be proposed from someplace it doesn’t presently exist. My research for last week’s story included a statement from a former Platteville alderman opining that downtown businesses shouldn’t get free parking because businesses outside downtown don’t get free parking. Some may agree with that, but note the word “former” in the previous sentence.
Those interested in political philosophy have probably read Garrett Hardin’s “The Tragedy of the Commons,” essay, which supplies different lessons about overgrazed pasture land depending on your political perspective. The idea that popped in my head — and I admit it’s far from perfect, and at least possibly unfeasible — would be for the city to assign, rent or sell parking spaces on city streets around downtown buildings to be assigned to the building closest to a particular parking spot.
I have now reached the end of this space of your favorite weekly newspaper. You might say I’ve reached a dead end on this subject, and maybe this subject is a dead end, at least to where a majority of people will be satisfied with its resolution.