My esteemed colleague Brent Runyon of the Providence Preservation Society was published in the Projo today objecting to variances being offered to the Garrahy Garage project. He unfortunately offers quite a modest criticism of the project, and advocates need to go a lot further to call Garrahy into question. Quoting his full letter:
Variances Threaten Urban Experience
I attended the May 8 Downtown Design Review Commission meeting where we learned more about the proposed Garrahy Garage. When the Journal first reported plans for a new garage in 2014, the General Assembly-backed plan included 20,000 square feet of commercial retail space. Last week, the Rhode Island Convention Center Authority sought a variance from the requirement for retail space along the Clifford Street portion of the garage.
Variances have already been granted to both the South Street Landing parking garage and a mixed-use building on Clifford Street. This kind of development does not advance the goal of knitting Downtown and the Jewelry District back together unless it provides ample ground floor activity. Don’t we want more space for sidewalk cafes and small businesses to energize and strengthen our neighborhoods? We have seen the positive impact of Buff Chace’s work at the Biltmore Garage. A previously desolate block of Washington Street has been brought to life with restaurants and shops.Granting variances from this requirement will not advance the vision for the “innovation and design” district. Providence cannot continue to prioritize cars over pedestrians if we want to create places were people want to be. Let’s recall the spirit of famed urbanist Jane Jacobs, who said that "streets and their sidewalks—the main public places of a city—are its most vital organs." We need to think about our city’s potential and say “no” to more variances.
Daytime, weekday parking at the Biltmore Garage, 2014.
Yodel-lay-hee-hoo! We're above the tree line for cars!
Runyon is making a moral appeal to preserve some semblance of a downtown, and he is right as far as he goes. He needs to go further.
The garage should not be built. Parking is a private concern, not a public one. The United States can't manage to create a public healthcare system like every other major country has, but its municipal, state, and federal policy is set up to pay for everyone's parking. After debt service is considered, this will cost Rhode Island more than $80 million-- that's almost three times what the (supposedly fiscally-irresponsible) Raimondo public college plan costs per year.
Creating some shops at the bottom of a publicly-funded eyesore is not good enough-- that might be okay as a regulation if only private money was being used, and even then the city would have a strong interest in limiting parking.
That there even is a Rhode Island Convention Center Authority is a problem. The state should not be running convention centers. It should be investing in public services and public spaces. This agency operates the free parking that is offered to downtown URI students (whose campus is feet from Kennedy Plaza's transit hub), and the Convention Center Authority is the reason that there are still no protected bike lanes on Sabin Street, according to a statement by Providence Planning official Bob Azar (Azar later rescinded the comments, but we know what that means).
Awash in Parking, But Nothing to Park For
Sadder still is the fact that Providence lacks in no way for parking. And not just surface parking-- indeed, there's a lot of that, and some garage proponents say that providing state-funded garages is a way out. Providence also is full of half-empty garages, almost all of which had some public subsidy to cause them to come into being, according to the mayoral statement that Brett Smiley's campaign sent to Transport Providence in 2014. These garages take taxable land out of circulation, create additional incentives to drive rather than use transit, and put a tax burden on development that could provide affordable and beautiful living and working spaces in our city. All this parking is one of the worst things for affordability.
The Providence Journal itself found that the giant outlay of public money the state defiantly and illegally put to parking just a few years ago has led to the lots sitting half-empty.
It's time for these quasi-public corporate agencies to stop destroying Providence. No garage. No public money spent on parking. Spend it on our depleted schools, our sidewalks, parks, bike infrastructure, transit, and other public amenities.
It's time to be a capital that's actually creative.
The Solution: Yes, active sidewalks. But more.
It's time for a parking lot tax. Pittsburgh has a 40% rate, and it raises more money for that city than its local income tax.
It's time to use that tax money to lower the burdensome property taxes that regressively attack renters in the city.
It's time to stop funding parking garages.
It's time for a parking-neutrality policy like Zurich, Switzerland-- a city of similar size, density, and hilliness as Providence.
It's time to start funding RIPTA, which gets less than a quarter per capita what the MBTA gets.
It's time to take some on-street parking away-- we'd only need a tiny bit-- to help some people get out of their cars, to stand up for our poor, our children, our elderly, our disabled, our business community, and our giant student population.
It's time to make affordable, beautiful spaces seriously.
And Then There's Car-share, Ride-share, and Automated Cars
I am not a big pusher of automated cars, which I think have major safety and induced demand dangers, but after they come to market, one thing everyone does seem to agree about is that parking spaces will be in much lower demand. Car-share and ride-share, which each already exist, already reduce the need for parking-- even for those who essentially are using a car for all their travel. Even if you read my above list, which focuses on places, transit, biking, walking, and crunchy Swiss social-democratic experiments, you should question why it is that the State of Rhode Island and all its Providence Plantations should be invested in a dead-end real estate concern. Maybe Curt Schilling can come to the ribbon cutting.
Sidewalks being left unactivated are just a part of what's wrong with Garrahy. Kudos to Brent Runyon, who is a treasure to Rhode Island. May our elected officials understand him as the moderate he is.