Saturday, March 3, 2007

Harold Brown's Proposed Robotic Parking

Mr. Brown's proposal for a robotic parking garage in Coolidge Corner is no doubt well intentioned and generous. An effort to minimize it's visual impact has obviously been made by "tucking" it behind the Coolidge Corner Theater. The whole idea of going vertical by deploying the robotic parking technology attempts to accommodate many vehicles without devoting a lot of land area to it, in a sense attempting to let us have our cake and eat it too. If we replace the existing surface parking with vertical parking, we are in effect gaining some land area that could be put to much better use. These efforts reveal Mr. Brown's understanding of the concerns and issues inherent in providing increased parking in Coolidge Corner.

Unfortunately, despite these laudable goals and the application of advanced technology, the resulting negative impacts of going forward with this proposal will far outweigh the potential gains. No matter how small and hidden we try to make a parking garage we are still choosing to give over a key part of our public realm to automobiles, rather than to people, or new businesses and the impacts of this choice go far beyond the site of the garage. The planning process is still underway that seeks to identify the development goals for the town owned land that is currently the Centre Street parking lot. We must take the time to look at the overall site and how it's development fits in with the future we wish to see for Coolidge Corner. It would be premature to decide now to build just one little piece of the puzzle and it would lock us into a scenario from which there would be no escape.

On a very basic level, there are serious traffic impacts if the robotic structure's 130 spaces were built in addition to the existing parking. An additional 130 parking spaces and all the vehicle trips in and out of them. Imagine the driveway at the Centre Street parking lot with twice as many vehicles traveling in and out. The driveway is too close to the Beacon Street intersection and it would become extremely difficult to turn left out of the lot. Then there is the left turn from Beacon to Centre Street, already a nightmare, now double the number of people trying to make that turn. Now imagine you are trying to walk down Centre Street, but you have to wade through all those cars driven by desperate people trying to get out. Then there is the question of where would the cars line up as they wait to get into the robotic deck? With all those additional cars, right next to all those occupied buildings, we have to ask ourselves, do we really want to be concentrating all those harmful emissions here? Functionally there are some really serious problems, but these are not the only or even the most important reasons why the structure should not be built.

I am aware that many are convinced that we need more parking in Coolidge Corner. Part of this perception is tied into the issue of long term parking needs for employees working at Coolidge Corner businesses. This is an issue that is being addressed separately, and employee parking would not be located here. The recent parking study performed by Traffic Solutions concluded that rather than a shortage of parking spaces, what is really happening is we are falling short in terms of utilizing the parking we do have. The study notes that regulations are not being fully enforced that would improve parking turnover, thereby making more spaces available for patrons. Additionally, available parking often goes unused due to lack of driver knowledge. People go to look for parking at the few places they are familiar with and don't bother to find out about other spaces that go unused. Better signage and public education could go a long way to address this knowledge gap.

There is disagreement about parking availability, and people's beliefs are based on perceptions. What is really at the heart of this debate are expectations. If everyone defines available parking as being able to drive and park right in front of your destination, then there is a lack of parking. What people don't realize is that fulfilling this expectation implies a trade-off. If we choose to make providing ultra-convenient parking our priority, we are precluding other uses for the land and making the public realm in that central location more hostile to the pedestrian. It's a question of location.

If we build this structure on our one remaining prime piece of land in Coolidge Corner, we will not be encouraging alternative transportation or the use of the alternative parking lots we already have. If we have learned anything about the automobile and cities it is that places that cater exclusively to cars are not very nice places to walk through or near. If we want a commercial core that has a lively street life, one that is pleasant to stroll through and to window shop, to sit on a bench, or to spend time in our hoped for new civic space, it cannot be successful if all those people have to cross many busy driveways, or walk through parking lots or sit next to a parking garage.

If we can park a block away and walk, or better yet take the T, walk or ride a bike, we can have a commercial core that we will want to visit and spend time in. There is a self-fulfilling aspect to building parking at such a central location. If that parking space is there, people will drive, when they could perhaps have chosen not to drive. With streetscape amenities, vital ground floor retail and civic space, the area becomes one that is nurturing to relaxation and community life. This is what we would be giving up. What we want is to create is a commercial area that is so compelling people will want to come here even if they can't park in front of the store. If convenient parking were all that we had to offer, the customer might as well go to the mall. Shopping has become more than just shopping in our culture, people are looking for an experience and genuine human interaction, along with unique retail offerings. We are poised to provide this. People will come from further away because it will be inviting. Think about the vast number of people with access to the MBTA who are potential new customers.

Lowering our parking expectations is a long term proposition with great potential benefits besides just improved land use. There are the environmental benefits from people switching to the T to get here. New employees will self-select from the pool of those who have good T access for their commute. The Traffic Solutions parking study also showed that Brookline's current zoning dictates parking requirements that are one-third to one-half higher than rates in Cambridge, Somerville and the Institute of Transportation Engineers manual. We should lower the parking requirements. This will encourage use of alternative transportation, and it will encourage mixed use development, which could ultimately reduce auto-dependent travel as well.

Rather than just arguing about whether or not we have a parking shortage, we need to be honest about what we are really asking for and giving up when we want more parking behind the Coolidge Corner Theater. It is tempting to accept Mr. Brown's generosity, especially since the economics of developing the site are so challenging. Nonetheless, I encourage those who are planning for CC's future to keep their eyes on the prize and envision what that space could be, an asset for our community life and a place bursting with business opportunities.

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