The Ann Arbor Observer provides a window into a particular subset of local life. I have fond childhood memories of reading occasional copies of the Observer brought up north by visiting family. And now as a long-time resident, I eagerly dig in when it arrives.
The “Marketplace Changes” column rarely disappoints, offering up endearing (and sometimes downright Portlandia-esque) vignettes about local businesses. This month’s edition features “The Retail Retreat Continues,” an overview of three downtown businesses closing up shop. I won’t mention the name of the business I’m about to discuss or its owners, because I don’t want to make this about them. To be clear, I’m not taking issue with them or their decision to close. Rather, I’d like to question a fairly common sentiment they express during the course of explaining why they have chosen to close their retail location on the 200 block of South Fourth Avenue.
In an interview with Observer columnist Sabine Bickford, the owners cite a number of reasons for the closure, including the challenge of a long-running construction project across the street, the popularity of shopping online instead of visiting brick-and-mortar retailers, and nearby brick-and-mortar competition. It’s the next sentence that caused me to put down my coffee and frown. Here it is in full:
“Add declining interest in [their signature product], and the one-two punch of a long winter with sparse parking for their older customers, and the [owners] felt the store wasn’t sustainable anymore.”
Let me get this straight… part of the reason you’re closing the store is some of your customers didn’t have enough parking nearby? Your store is less than 200 feet from a parking structure with 281 spaces, and less than 500 feet from another parking structure with 984 spaces. There are over one thousand parking spaces within shouting distance of your storefront, and that’s a “sparse” amount of parking? What amount of parking would be enough?
I’ve heard many townies (and out-of-townies) say something similar about parking downtown—-that there’s not nearly enough of it. And yet those same people often want to keep downtown funky and vibrant. I have two problems with this argument. First, it’s not true. We don’t have a dire shortage of parking downtown. And second, if you want to keep downtown fun and functional, you can’t fill it with an endless sea of parking.
[For those wondering about the state of downtown parking, check out a 2015 report commissioned by the DDA. Its findings indicate we could use more parking in the long term, but we’re not in a crisis, and we can make better choices about the parking we have now.]
So the next time you hear someone say there’s not enough parking downtown, or some other version of this car-centric canard, do us all a favor and (gently) push back. It does us no favors to let this attitude persist. And looking ahead to this August’s city council and mayoral primary elections, it could actually be harmful. How? Allowing spurious claims like “downtown businesses are closing because we don’t have enough parking” to flourish affects decision-making about so much more—including housing availability and affordability as well as development and use patterns in near-downtown neighborhoods.
How can we get beyond these head-in-the-sand arguments? Let’s ask FOR THINGS instead of being averse to change, and look for evidence rather than relying on NIMBY folk wisdom. For example, talk to your city council reps about the numerous surface parking lots downtown. What would you like to see in those spaces instead of cars? Let’s continue to ask AAATA for (and be willing to fund) better evening and weekend bus service. Work downtown? Ask your employer about getting a go!pass. Finally, let’s support denser development (with lower parking minimums!) downtown so that more people can afford to live, work, eat, and shop in the heart of our community.
Stop complaining about parking. Start asking for better options.