On Oct. 5, The Times Argus printed an article, “Small housing group offers telling data,” that reported on the research by Downsizing Montpelier, which revealed a local demand by seniors for manageable single-floor units in higher-density developments. The most suitable location for such housing, the research found, is on land now allocated to parked cars. Sixty percent of downtown Montpelier is currently surrendered to parking lots. Most of that real estate is owned by the state of Vermont to supply its employees with free parking. The group’s representatives, along with the mayor, went to see Chris Cole, commissioner of the State Department of Buildings and General Services, which manages those state parking lots. While Cole was sympathetic to the group’s concerns, his telling answer to their request was that any development “must not result in any net loss of parking.” There is the rub. Montpelier’s future is prisoner to a long-term historical miss-allocation of real estate, the resolution of which will be crucial for the economic and environmental future of the city.
While the state-owned parking lots provide thousands of car-dependent employees a benefit, they provide few benefits to the city and carry significant costs. Most of that land is tax-free (state-owned) so, it provides no tax benefit to the city. In fact, recent studies on the effects of such massive downtown parking craters show that most other cities experience substantial costs from these areas, above and beyond the lost taxes. Massive parking ensures a constant stream of polluting vehicle traffic downtown, as well as toxic runoff into the Winooski River and subsequently into lake Champlain. Built right up to the river’s edge, these lots cut off all public recreational access to the scenic riverfront and preclude the development of flood buffers and parks.
This situation raises a profound challenge to the city and its future that cannot be met with the state’s position that there must be “no net loss of parking.” It also creates a focus on one of the premier challenges of our current moment: What can we do about our intimate dependence on the personal car? We can gripe and complain about how we decided to use some of the most valuable property in the city for parking, but the fact is that the convenience of personal vehicle travel is too compelling. Most of us hop in the car from our homes well out-of-town to get to work and to pop down to the store for a loaf of bread.
Most of us believe that easy access to free or low-cost parking is an individual right. This is especially true in rural Vermont, where alternative transport options are few and often inconvenient. Its even true within Montpelier, where the U.S. Census tells us that almost 2,000 city residents commute downtown to work every day.
We pay a lot for such convenience. Automobile ownership is one of the most expensive of our household costs. AAA says that each personal vehicle Vermonters own costs us, on average, $8,000 per year.
A year and a half ago, Net Zero Vermont recognized this issue was warping the future of our small city. To address that, Net Zero believed that people needed a new and optimistic vision asking: What if the parking craters were re-purposed for social benefit? This led to the Sustainable Montpelier Design Competition, which generated entries from all over the world. These designs allowed us all to imagine how we could begin transforming our downtown to meet the challenges of climate and economic disruption while also adding significant, tax-producing housing to our central city.
The Downsizing Montpelier group represents an important demographic shift in that a growing number of our residents are aging, and providing transit options for the older households will complement the demand driven by another demographic shift. The millennials are gaining a reputation for seeking lower impact lifestyles, using technology to participate in a shared economy and locating closer to their places of work and commerce. Without affordable housing to attract both demographics, we are incapable of supporting our existing community, while building the base of young talent we so desperately need. Montpelier can and should be the home to both of these growing populations. Transforming our transportation system can be the key to their choosing our growing city as a home.
Of course, change is never easy. Everyone has their entrenched interests to defend and as noted, messing with the personal freedom seemingly offered by the car is a massive challenge. But I think it’s time to start addressing the parking puzzle in Montpelier in a way that can lead to long-term sustainable changes in, and enrichment to, our downtown. Eliminating all parking downtown is not a practical goal, but we can moderate the existing puzzle by asking different questions. For instance, would it be possible to develop alternative, convenient and affordable ways for people to get into and out of town for work and play without their cars? That is a solvable problem that will take imagination and resources but it is possible.
Devoting the most valuable land in our downtowns to parking lots is a huge miss-allocation of resources. In order to keep our community healthy, we need both new housing for our older citizens while also providing space to welcome the young people we desperately need. To solve our parking puzzle, we need to build the kind of transportation system that will nurture the transition to more sustainable uses of our downtown. It’s time to get to work.
Dan Jones is the Managing Director of the Sustainable Montpelier Coalition and a leader in the City’s netzero design and planning efforts.