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New deck not the answer

City officials say a new parking deck would help solve a parking shortage in Birmingham, but it won’t, and not only because the private development to accompany the deck would consume most of the additional spaces provided.

Even if the city eked out a net gain in parking, the shortage would not be addressed – and there are good reasons to suggest it should not be. That’s because the shortage is not the problem, it’s a symptom. The problem is systemic, and so must be the solution.

The biggest problem is that the city now encourages property owners to build offices, for which it provides parking as a matter of right (at a very low cost), and discourages them from building residences, because it requires them to provide their own parking. The residential development we do get is very large and very expensive, primarily because more, smaller units would require more, very expensive parking. And so we are left with an imbalance: too many offices (at least in relation to the supply of parking), with more on their way.

Meanwhile, many believe we have too few less expensive condos or apartments, and not enough people actually living downtown. Birmingham is not nearly fully built-out, and so there is lots of room to move for property owners. The only question is: In what direction?

The bottom line: The city could add 1,000 new parking spaces, property owners would quickly build offices to fill them, and we’d be right where we are today. Problem not solved.

Birmingham has other problems that involve parking, most glaringly the lack of it in the city’s Triangle District, the area bounded by Woodward, Maple, Adams and Lincoln. This underdeveloped area was the subject of a master plan more than a decade ago, and though city-owned parking was a major component of the plan, it was never executed. No parking, no development, a dead-end largely of the city’s own making.

Other dynamics affect the supply and demand of parking – technology, for example, and the decline in car ownership. While mass transit isn’t much a factor in Birmingham, the rise of ride hailing and car-sharing services like Uber and Zip will make serious differences. And the impact could go in both directions. Not only could Uber cause a drop in demand for parking; a drop in supply of parking could cause an increase in the use of Uber.

So now it’s your turn to contribute to the solution. As a resident, would you rather have more offices and office workers and daytime parkers overloading our parking system, or a thriving community of more fellow residents living downtown?

We’re going to guess you’ll take the latter. And so the answer is relatively simple: Pass laws that encourage smaller, less expensive residences downtown, and do whatever you can, in addition to the self-regulating dynamic of supply and demand, to discourage office development.

City planners have been talking for some time about reducing or eliminating the parking requirement on residential development downtown, and outside planners hired to revise our master plan in May recommended just that. Residents would use the parking structures at night, after the office workers go home. (Those planners also told us we are just about maxed out on parking in the Central Business District, and ought to be looking to the Triangle District for future supply needs, a recommendation that dovetails nicely with the district’s master plan.)

To assist supply and demand in discouraging office development, the city could begin to recognize the role of pricing in the law of supply and demand. In other words, raise its prices. Did you know that a monthly parking permit in Birmingham is about one-third the cost of a similar permit in downtown Detroit?

If you’re lost in the woods and can’t see the forest for the trees, watch out. Wolves lurk. Developers will be more than happy to build you a shiny new parking deck, especially if you’re willing to give them a sweet deal on some prime real estate.

The answer to Birmingham’s parking problem is not a new, slightly larger $67 million parking deck.

Vote ‘no’ on August 6, and insist on a do-over that addresses the real problems – with a much lower price tag.

Clinton Baller


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