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Our problematic parking preoccupation 

"A UNIVERSITY," a wise person once said, "is a place where students, faculty, and staff come together to complain about parking."

The same could be said of Facebook in Savannah last week, where members from all parts of our community congregated and commiserated after City Council’s approval of a modified version of the Parking Matters plan.

The desire for cheap and easy parking causes otherwise thoughtful people to betray causes they normally support. It’s magical, truly.

Proponents of preservation forget our movement was born out of the fight to save the Davenport House from becoming a parking lot. Indeed, the National Landmark Historic District exists today largely because misguided measures to adapt Gen. Oglethorpe’s masterpiece to the motor age were only partially implemented.

Environmentalists gripe about paying more to park, while ignoring the potential of higher rates to shift travel to more sustainable modes. Shoppers and shopkeepers say parking is critical, but do not consider that acres of free parking won’t save Sears or any of the other large retailers likely to disappear in the coming years.

People who you’d expect to understand the concept of supply and demand argue that a limited resource should be made free.

That’s not to say concerns over the impact of the plan are unwarranted. However, we should consider the full picture.

I too worry higher meter rates will be a burden on low wage workers, but we must not overlook the lowest wage workers, who cannot afford to drive at all.

They’ll benefit from better walking and biking infrastructure funded by increased rates, which will give them more dignified commutes and a much better chance of arriving at work safely.

Some folks suggest Parking Matters is yet the latest evidence that locals are no longer welcome downtown. I must admit this complaint resonates. Twenty years ago, I wrote a newspaper column fretting about the tourist-to-resident ratio, which means I am remarkably prescient. Or I really jumped the gun.

Nostalgia is a factor in discussion of the parking plan and was manifested in a spirited a discussion about what would have impeded the path of a bowling ball rolled down Broughton Street in days of yore. That mental exercise certainly sent me down memory lane, or more precisely, up the escalator at the old Kress store.

A meal at the delightfully outdated Luigi’s restaurant during a recent visit to Augusta had a similar effect. The jukebox there instantly put me in mind of the coin operated time machine at Jim Collins bar.

No disrespect to Green Truck Pub, Graveface Records, or anywhere else in town where a vinyl-based jukebox still resides, but that dusty contraption was an institution.

I was also reminded that a place like Luigi’s, though loved by locals, would now be repurposed as a flip flop dispensary or luxury brand outpost had it been located on Broughton Street in Savannah instead of on Broad Street in Augusta.

Still, I was premature in predicting the tipping point to total tourist takeover. And some would say there’s no such thing.

But if there was a pivotal moment, I’d place it in 2004 or thereabouts, when inhabitants of the 188 apartment units in the Drayton Tower were evicted to make way for a condo scheme that failed just a few years later.

The “trailer park in the sky,” as some called it, provided affordable housing to students, seniors, and professional eccentrics, who wanted to live downtown, but needed to keep their operating expenses low.

It could be argued that people in the last category were partially responsible for Savannah’s modern tourism boom.

Back when visitors first started arriving in Savannah in search of the characters they’d read about in “The Book,” they had a pretty good chance of encountering, if not those exact individuals, at least some who seemed like they’d be right at home in the pages of John Berendt’s novel.

These people have since been priced out of the housing market. This should trouble tourism leaders, whose industry places increasing emphasis on authentic experiences.

The “That’s Savannah” tagline will take on a different connotation if every person a visitor meets on Bull Street is, like them, wearing a sticker that permits them to board a tourist trolley.

Which brings us back to parking. If we want downtown Savannah to retain what’s left of its character — both in the form of interesting humans and our irreplaceable built environment — we must let go of our obsession with parking and traffic congestion.

We must change off street parking minimums and other ordinances that prevent construction of affordable apartments. We must reject street designs that prioritize driver convenience over safety and quality of life for residents. We must embrace residential density.

We need a new version of the old Drayton Tower, which was originally designed to provide inexpensive housing for veterans and other lower income residents.

In fact, we need a bunch of new old Drayton Towers, but this is currently impossible because of our fixation on parking and traffic. We are letting our cars tell us what kind of city we can have.

Think of any number of cherished Savannah landmarks, from Mrs. Wilkes’ to Forsyth Park. What if they were just now being proposed?

We could expect angry citizens to pack public meetings and voice their fears of parking and traffic problems. In a town where frequent 5K fatigue syndrome is real, imagine the outcry if someone suggested an event that would snarl traffic and make parking impossible north of Victory Drive for an entire weekend.

If it didn’t exist already, would a permit for St. Patrick’s Day have a prayer of being approved?

Downtown Savannah does not need more parking. It needs more people. Our preoccupation with vehicle storage will only accelerate the historic district’s transformation into a place that people visit, instead of a place where people live.

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Speaking of Parking Matters, National Landmark Historic District

About The Author

John Bennett

John Bennett

Bio:
John Bennett is executive director of the Savannah Bicycle Campaign.

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