Yesterday, an astute reader alerted me in a comment on this post about parking in Salt Lake City to a recent article in the Atlantic Cities about the same topic. I’m not sure how I missed the article, but it’s quite illuminative:
Fearing that their hometown is becoming a lake of asphalt, Salt Lake City councilors have outlawed the practice of knocking down buildings to create surface parking lots. Right now, Salt Lake has about 55 acres of blacktop carpeting the downtown area, a hefty 20 percent of its surface area. The new ordinance, which affects a central commercial district, is meant to prevent more gray slabs of blah from masquerading as urban blocks, […]
The article is based on this Salt Lake Tribune piece, in which councilman Stan Penfold expresses fears that parking is going to suck the life out of downtown. I’d argue that he’s too late; Salt Lake is a fun place but feels oddly dead and small as a result of the large swaths of pavement.
I’d also say the ordinance doesn’t go far enough; 32,000 spaces is plenty for a region the size of the Salt Lake Valley, and if those spots fill up it merely incentivizes more people to use alternate means, like public transit, to access downtown. For example, would fewer people come to the LDS Church’s general conference if there was less free parking? I doubt it because I think people believe more strongly in their faith than they do in their misplaced belief that parking should be abundant and easy to use. In any case, the point is that Salt Lake should be eliminating parking, not just outlawing the ugliest lots.
But while I’d ban all new parking if I were the king of Salt Lake, this new ordinance is still a positive move that offers lessons for other cities. For one, it points out that parking often has a negative impact on a downtown. As Penfold correctly points out, it can suck the life out of a place. Though obvious to some people, that’s a fairly radical shift in the car-centric West.
Salt Lake’s solution — requiring parking to be removed from the streets or tucked behind buildings — is also an improvement on the status quo. It’s an acknowledgment that a sea of asphalt should probably never abut a sidewalk or pedestrian zone. Now it just remains for Salt Lake, and Provo, to fix existing problem areas, of which there are many.
It’s also worth noting that Minneapolis, which struggles with a similar problem, has devised an even more novel plan to improve its downtown: taxing land at a higher rate than buildings:
The conventional property tax, which taxes land and buildings at the same rate, is essentially backwards when it comes to the behaviors it incentivizes. It penalizes property owners for building or making improvements to their structures, while rewarding speculators and absentee landlords who would rather allow their properties to decay than make expensive (and annually taxable) improvements. Taxing land and buildings at the same rate means that as long as you don’t put any buildings on your land, your tax bill is going to remain relatively cheap.
The new plan would tax land at it’s “development potential,” thus creating incentives for people to actually do something with it rather than wait for someone to come along and pay a “‘pie-in-the-sky’ price” for it.