Kristina Walker, executive director of Downtown on the Go, was walking when I posed a question to her.
Does the McMenamins Elk Lodge, scheduled to open next year, need more parking than plans currently call for?
“That’s a hard no,” Walker shot back, without missing a beat or presumably a step.
An unsurprising answer coming from Walker, whose organization advocates for alternative forms of transportation, like, say, walking.
But also a contentious one these days.
As Tacoma grows and evolves, so, too, it seems does the push back on efforts that focus on modes of transportation beyond the good, old automobile.
Recently, with stories in this paper about a perceived lack of parking at the new McMenamins project and a parking crunch in Tacoma’s Stadium District, this push back has been louder and more palpable than usual.
For Walker, it's been irksome to watch this conservation play out.
“I think it’s incredibly frustrating, because I’ve been at this for seven years. When I started in 2011, all we wanted was to fill these vacant spaces downtown. Now we’ve done it, and we’re somehow surprised that what came with all those businesses is cars and the need for parking space?” Walker said.
“I kind of feel like we’ve spent all this time working toward this thing, and now we’ve got it, and we’re going to complain about it?”
For many, the city’s shift away from designing downtown around the presumption that just about every warm body will naturally be accompanied by a warm-engined car is clearly a tough pill to swallow.
Change is hard, especially when it bucks a century of car-centric history.
Still, it’s not difficult to understand why transportation-choice advocates like Walker and others start to feel trapped in a time warp listening to it all.
Is this 1988, or 2018?
There’s plenty of evidence to suggest that a vibrant, economically thriving downtown is not dependent on a parking stall for all. In fact, the opposite is often true. Furthermore, the expectation of plentiful parking clearly butts up against the cold, hard reality that such a vision is likely impossible.
Even more, the idea that we should continue to design downtown around a single-mode of transportation — one that contributes to gridlock and greenhouse gases and essentially leaves most other transportation options as afterthoughts — feels at odds with the shifts we see from younger generations.
To Walker, the conversation about what Tacoma’s downtown should look like isn’t about cars as much as it’s about people.
“Cars don’t shop, people shop. Cars don’t go to businesses, people do,” Walker said. “To frame everything around cars and not around people is silly and not fair to people who are interested in getting around in other ways or aren’t able to drive.”
Walker was just getting warmed up.
“Our cities have been socially engineered to force us to drive forever, so we forget that there are any other options,” she continued. “If I’m on a bike, it is clear from the way our city is designed that I am not welcome here. Then, if you want to argue that so we should socially engineer everyone into their cars — if that’s your argument — then we’ve got a math problem, because we simply cannot fit enough cars.”
As City Manager Elizabeth Pauli recently explained to The News Tribune business reporters Kate Martin and Debbie Cockrell, the city’s planning and policy goals are intended “to encourage people to walk, bike and take a bus or the Link downtown.”
It’s not a new idea, and one many urban planners support. Yet, to be truly successful in this endeavor, it’s clear that Tacoma’s public transportation system will need to continue to improve and that skeptics still need to be won over.
As far as downtown transit is concerned, advocates argue that the infrastructure is there and poised to improve as Link light rail expands in the coming years. It’s worth noting, they say, that Pierce Transit’s ridership is up, largely thanks to a recent route restructuring that puts a premium on frequency.
According to Cathy Reines, president and CEO of Koz Development, downtown Tacoma is more than ready to welcome a shift away from the automobile. Fighting that shift is a foolhardy business proposition, Reines said.
Koz is currently developing a 104-studio apartment building near the University of Washington Tacoma's campus. It will be the company’s first completed micro-housing project in Tacoma, and one that will cater to residents deliberately untethered to an automobile.
By forgoing the cost of parking in construction, Reines says, Koz will be able to pass that savings along to residents. Reines says the company has buildings in Seattle, Portland and the greater Puget Sound area. The average resident is 30-years-old, and Koz buildings offer just the type of lifestyle those folks are looking for.
“We really look to find those residents who are looking for the opportunity to potentially pay less in rent and not bring a car. Parking is extremely expensive to build, and if you can eliminate those costs from the project, you can pass that savings along on the rent,” Reines said.
Koz projects, Reines said, are designed to be affordable to those making 80-percent of area AMI, paying no more than 30-percent of their income toward rent.
With our area’s growing affordability crisis, that feels prudent.
“That is our mission, in general,” Reines said. “We think it’s consistent with the future.”
While predicting the future can be tricky, I suspect Reines is right. I also suspect her message will continue to be one plenty of people just don’t want to hear.
For Walker, the takeaway partly boils down to just how big a problem parking scarcity really is?
“If you’re somewhere where there is not a parking problem, then you’re somewhere that people don’t want to be,” Walker offered.
“It means it’s an awesome place to be, and people will figure out a way to get there.”