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Getting a higher ROI from parking

Today I gave a web conference to Community Growth Institute Network Community members on Design Standards for Small Towns. This is the third time I have done this session and I absolutely love it. What we have done is taken our photos from the tour we did of Celebration, Florida, last December and we use them to help participants see their community differently. We point out:

  • The physical attributes of creating a sense-of-place,
  • How to reorient undesirable uses (more on this in a minute),
  • The reasons to terminate vistas,
  • Steps for providing the proper scale for neighborhoods,
  • The importance of creating gathering places,
  • Using architecture in key locations, and
  • The subtle importance of branding.

I always start the presentation by explaining that Celebration, like any small town, is made up of the same components. They all have streets, buildings, sidewalks, parking, cars, people, lights, etc... It is just that in Celebration they are assembled differently. So the provocative question we try and get people to ponder is simply: how do they want to assemble the parts they have to work with.

Oh, and we also point out that, unlike nearly every other small town, Celebration is both high density (by small town standards) and desirable to live in. So Celebration makes efficient use of their infrastructure and uses the urban form of the community to increase property values within. For small towns that are devolving under auto-oriented zoning codes while also financially struggling to maintain their underutilized infrastructure, Celebration presents a radical alternative.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the location of parking.

Here is a picture of the main commercial area of Celebration. We have used red to identify the parking areas and blue to highlight the road corridors. Notice how very little of the parking areas abut the streets. It is all internal to the structures, which are assembled along the street corridors. Not only does this configuration create a vibrant public realm, it correctly allocates the highest and best use to the most valuable real estate. Parking lots do not sell goods, employ people or pay much in property tax. Businesses do. In Celebration they understand this and make sure their commercial endeavors get top billing.

Now contrast that with an image of my home town of Brainerd, MN. We used the same designations for parking and street location and in doing so the differences are evident. Brainerd has about the same amount of parking as Celebration, but it occupies prominent, valuable real estate. In fact, one of the two most important intersections in the city - the intersection of Laurel and South 6th - is 1/4 parking. (Unfortunately another 1/4 of this intersection is a brick wall building that looks like a jail. The other half of the intersection is one of the best coffee shops around and a retail location with revolving tenancy). 

Not only does all this parking underutilize the infrastructure, generate relatively nothing in tax revenue, employ no people and occupy some of the best real estate in the city, but it also detracts from the public realm. Brainerd just sunk millions into making their downtown more pedestrian friendly, but without addressing all of the sense-of-place-destroying gaps created by surface parking, the downtown is still struggling to create that sense of vibrancy.

In short, Brainerd is obtaining a very low return on investment. Celebration, by assembling the same components in a different way, is realizing a high return on investment. Communities wanting to be Strong Towns would do well to understand the lessons of Celebration and adopt a development pattern that makes better use of their infrastructure investments.


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Reader Comments (6)

The overhead shots do a great job of illustrating the concept. Sorry I missed the session.

April 14, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterEdy

Yeah, but Brainard is a small, local town visited by fellow Minnesotans and Celebration is basically a theme park for tourists coming from out of state. I don't see why these two are similar except in strict population.

April 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterKatie

Katie, is your comment meant to imply that only "theme park" cities or those that draw tourists from out of state can make use of parking in this way? I don't see how putting buildings on the (higher valued land) street and parking in the (lower valued land) rear isn't something that can be applied in any city.

April 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterBen Oleson

Actually, Celebration is a REAL town, not a themepark. REAL people live there, shop there, and work there. Yes, some tourists do visit there as well, but the town is inhabited by people, not Disney characters, nor does it consist of rental homes for those staying in town for Universal and Walt Disney World. The key difference is the two towns is that Celebration was planned, so the parking vs commercial space could be laid out in advance.

April 19, 2010 | Unregistered Commenteraunt melmel

Celebration is not a real town, actually. It is a "Census-designated place", and is not an incorporated entity with a representative local government like Brainerd is. As the above commenter noted, Celebration is a master-planned community, but it was in fact developed by the Walt Disney Company. Additionally, Brainerd has a history and has been around since the 1800's. There are only two municipalities in Osceola County (Kissimmee and St. Cloud), both of which have been around since before WWI. Celebration was a greenfield site until development began in about 1990.

Sure, Celebration has a lot of best practices in place, but it's a lot easier to start from stratch than it is to work with streets and buildings and infrastructure that already exist. Perhaps that should be part of your lecture, going forward.

April 20, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterFlorida planner

Charles, this is a terrific post. I like it so much that I incorporated it into one of my own on parking and walkability.

April 20, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterKaid @ NRDC
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