What would be the best use for the Market Square parking lots?
Downtowns are defined by public spaces
Luther is director of Downtown Roanoke Inc.
Downtowns are defined by public spaces
The historic City Market is the first thing most of us bring visitors to see when they arrive in Roanoke. Nationally recognized, in the company of Central Park and the Vietnam Memorial, as a “Great American Public Place” by the Lyndhurst Foundation, the Market District is home to a dynamic array of locally owned stores and restaurants.
This is the very soul of Roanoke, the image we place on our postcards, the thing we have that our neighbors can copy but never truly replicate, and it deserves a front door befitting its history and status rather than a poorly functioning place to park cars.
As a pedestrian-oriented plaza, Market Square has the opportunity to become that front door by evolving into Roanoke’s pre-eminent public space. Imagine a space to enjoy lunch from the Roanoke Weiner Stand after shopping at the unique local shops on Market Street, an opportunity to introduce trees to our vibrant commercial core, and improved and expanded facilities for vendors in our renowned farmers market. Imagine a new living room in the midst of downtown.
Personal preferences are changing. Americans and Roanokers are no longer satisfied with the static experience provided by chain restaurants, office parks and enclosed mall shopping. Twenty-first century economic development is about attracting talent, and young talent is hungry for the unique experiences offered by downtown Roanoke. Continuing to invest in downtown’s public spaces is not just important to improving our quality of life, it is an economic necessity.
There are still questions to be answered. How to accommodate short-term parkers patronizing the market vendors, as well as retail and restaurants on Market Street, is paramount to the planning process. A balance must be found between creating a dynamic urban center and the need for parking. We cannot (and do not) expect Roanokers to simply change their habits just because we say to park in a garage. At the same time, accommodating increasing visitors, residents and employees exclusively in surface parking lots is impossible. Downtown Roanoke Inc. and the city of Roanoke are actively working to develop a parking plan that addresses the needs of short- and long-term parkers to ensure that customers can reach our businesses with as few barriers as possible; better utilization of the 800 on-street and 4,500 garage spaces surrounding Market Square will be integral to that plan.
Cities and regions are defined by their downtowns. In turn, downtowns are defined by their public spaces. As construction at Center in the Square concludes, we have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to complete the Market District with a spectacular front door that lives up to the district’s history and helps to define its future.
Parking is essential to the market
City council just approved eliminating the 24 parking spaces next to the downtown library. Now it is considering eliminating 25 more on weekdays in the City Market. So why not eliminate all parking downtown? That is the trend promoted by our city council.
The demise of most downtowns in America came about due to shopping malls, which recognized that convenient free parking would suck all the business out of the downtowns and deposit it in the malls. They were right, and it did.
Now we have some city planners who think pedestrian is the way to go. They think about European pedestrian centers, but forget that Europe is a whole different world, where mass transit is light years ahead of the U.S., and tourism is the No. 1 industry.
Most shopping done in downtown Roanoke is done by people who drive into the city to work or shop. And parking is getting harder and harder to find. The last thing we need is to voluntarily give up more public parking.
The Taubman, for example, built its museum on its own parking lot. Many don’t visit because convenient free parking is not there. The museum ate its own parking lot.
Studies have shown that parking spaces have enormous value to downtowns because they attract business during the day and allow residents to park at night.
Other successful cities, such as Asheville, N.C., or Chattanooga, Tenn., which we often envy, provide much more convenient free parking. Therefore, they are healthier cities for business and for residents.
There are two roads Roanoke can take regarding parking:
1. We can accept the fact that we are an automotive society and try to accommodate that fact with additional and more convenient parking, or
2. We can go more pedestrian and turn our backs on those who drive. They can park in the outlands and find a shuttle bus. But I think they will just go to the mall.
The Roanoke City Market is one of the top 10 in the U.S. That is significant. Tampering with such a success must be done very carefully. Parking is absolutely essential to the market, so any decrease in public parking in one area should be made up for with additional parking nearby.
There should be no net loss of convenient parking in the market or the city.
The health of our downtown depends on convenient parking. Our city council and planners are headed in the wrong direction and about to hit a brick wall.