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If we win the parking war, we lose the city
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The TV news crew set up on the corner of Broughton and Barnard streets to shoot interviews for a story about Ben Carter's proposed $75 million Broughton Street redevelopment plan. Their mission: Collect footage of people complaining about downtown parking and demanding more places to park.

Who can blame them, really? We can't have a public dialog about much in this town without mentioning parking.

Whether we are talking about new arenas, ballparks, churches, stores, schools, large events or even lazy summer days at the beach — concerns about parking are often the beginning and the end of the conversation.

I wouldn't be surprised if there's an extended director's cut of Jamie Casino's Super Bowl commercial in which he uses his flaming sledgehammer to smash a parking meter.

The reporter and cameraman got their money quote from a woman who said she doesn't like to pay for parking. What's more, she claimed she sometimes finds herself "driving for hours" looking for a place to park downtown.

Let's unpack this.

First, by saying she doesn't like paying for parking, what she really means is she doesn't like paying for parking directly. As suggested by the title of UCLA professor Donald Shoup's 800-page book, "The High Cost of Free Parking," there really is no such thing.

Businesses and other institutions that offer "free" parking fold the considerable cost of building and maintaining surface and structured parking into the price of goods and services. We all pay for "free" parking, even if we don't drive.

The line about driving for hours to find a space is clearly hyperbole. Still, it's undeniable that some folks will relentlessly circle the same block waiting for a car to pull away from the curb.

Here, too, Shoup's research is instructive. He identifies motorists prowling for on-street parking opportunities as a major cause of traffic congestion in America's downtowns.

In Savannah, however, there seems to be something else at work. Millions of people come from all over the world every year to enjoy strolling our streets. Yet some of us just can't tolerate walking a couple of blocks from our cars to our destinations, even in one of the most beautiful cities in North America.

Should we fine tune the pricing of on-street parking to reflect market rates as Shoup suggests, extend hours of operation at municipal garages and find other ways to maximize the usefulness of our existing parking inventory? Certainly.

However, entertaining unreasonable expectations of suburban-style parking in a historic city is potentially disastrous, as explained by Savannah-based urban designer Kevin Klinkenberg.

"Savannah can, like so many other cities, solve its parking problem by building a lot of convenient, cheap parking," he said. "And when we are done with that, we will have destroyed the reasons people love Savannah in the first place."

We have already made numerous sacrifices to the gods of happy motoring.

"Mayor Gamble fought strenuously against the proposals promoted by automobile enthusiasts in the 1920s and 30s to cut through the squares of Montgomery Street (and other proposals for cutting through squares generally)," according to Robin Williams, chair of the Architectural History Department at SCAD.

"Although he failed to prevent the US Highway department to route Highway 17 down Montgomery, effectively destroying three squares, he succeeded in establishing support to protect the other squares."

Williams points out that, "Savannah was endowed from its founding in 1733 with generously wide streets, allowing much more on-street parking opportunities than other cities," he said. "Even so, numerous parking lots and garages have been erected, with some encroaching insensitively on the city's urban plan, such as the garage on the west side of Warren Square or the vast parking lot on the east side of the Civic Center."

At the SCAD Museum of Art on Feb. 11, noted urban planner Victor Dover talked about his new book, "Street Design: The Secret to Great Cities and Towns." He devoted a healthy portion of his lecture to strategies for encouraging bicycling.

This is the type of discussion we should be having. We ought to be talking about how to make it safer and more convenient for people to get into and around Savannah by foot, bicycle and transit. Yet the fantasy of creating easy and inexpensive downtown parking persists in the public imagination.

As long as we continue clinging to unrealistic ideas, we'll be distracted from the critical task of developing solutions that protect our most valuable civic assets while improving mobility for residents and visitors alike.