NEXT TIME you’re watching your child’s soccer game or in line at the grocery store, ask any nearby person two questions: 1) What should be done in Savannah about the economy? 2) What should be done about parking?
My bet is that just about anyone over age 16 has a concrete suggestion about fixing parking, but is left speechless about strategies for our economy. In that vein, this column isn’t about the economy.
Or is it?
Over the past nine weeks, a group of smart, concerned Savannahians has slogged through a discussion of the book, Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs’ 1961 classic about city design and city life. I’ve been honored to participate as the cruise director of this often arduous journey.
Jacobs’ fundamental point is that a city is an economic entity. From this premise, all her suggestions are intended to enhance the economic vitality of cities, including ideas about streets and automobiles.
In a 2005 New Yorker essay, Adam Gopnik wrote that “the mark of a city worth living in is that there are never enough places to park....”
Isn’t our local economy what we’re really talking about when we discuss parking? If Gopnik and Jacobs are correct, then what it means to have a citywide parking problem is that economic life is holding its own for now, despite the world’s economic downturn and its most recent local victims—laid off workers at JCB and Great Dane.
When I moved home to Savannah in 1994 it was pretty easy to park downtown. Not coincidentally, there weren’t many reasons, other than my job, to go down there. Most of my current favorite downtown destinations didn’t exist.
In the mid-to-late 1990’s, as a daily downtown office worker, my lunch choices were mostly limited to Morrison’s Cafeteria, Debi’s, a few sandwich places, the occasional precarious trek in high heels to River Street, or, after she moved downtown from the southside, over to Paula Deen’s then-unknown place on Congress Street.
Shopping? Globe Shoe Company and Levy Jewelers were determinedly staying put amid a sea of downscale merchandise and vacant storefronts, and a couple of foolhardy art students had just opened Primary Art Supply, based on the crazy idea that they could survive on a mostly SCAD student clientele.
The Savannah Development and Renewal Authority was begging businesses to locate on Broughton Street. The city offered low-interest loans to property owners willing to upgrade their exteriors, using federal funds restricted for eliminating slum and blight.
Along Bull Street south of Forsyth Park, now the site of SCAD’s Arnold Hall, the prospect of a parking shortage was laughable. The area was considered a throwaway zone, and the city was creating housing programs hoping to encourage people to buy property there and in other low-income areas.
A major contributor to blight was the parking garage at Ellis Square, on the site of the former City Market, leased for 50 years to a private firm in 1954. By the mid-90’s, city staff were having informal brainstorming sessions on what to do when ownership reverted back to the public. The deadline of December 31, 2004 (the date the property reverted back to the city) was a major motivator.
It’s interesting to me that in the nearly three years since the Ellis Square garage wrecking party in December 2005, economic vitality in downtown Savannah has continued to increase, despite the elimination of those 400 parking spaces.
These days, as a work-from-home person, my morning commute is measured in feet rather than miles. Yet I venture downtown about once a week, during the 9 to 5, Monday through Friday period, and nearly as often at night.
I haven’t yet had to cancel my downtown plans due to an inability to park.
I’ve had to learn to change my habits—to plan ahead, usually allowing an extra 15 minutes in my trip in order to find a parking place. And, I’ve learned to park farther from my destination and hoof it through downtown—a fun experience now that our historic district has so many more interesting places.
In the end, the parking problem isn’t really about parking. It is about people—getting people from place to place in our city, so that they can work, shop, study, visit, teach, dine, create, worship, play. So they can live.
More on that next week. cs