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Parsing the high cost of free parking


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Photo by Nicholas Upton

Think about your average trip to a shopping mall—the height of car-based convenience. You jockey for an open spot, park, then walk the gauntlet through a chaotic lot filled with other distracted drivers. Judging by the crowds at most malls, walking the equivalent of a few blocks to the entrance doesn’t appear to scare off any shoppers.

Things are different in the city where parking is spread out along streets. Most Americans aren’t shy about their dislike of circling the block in search of a spot and walking a few blocks to their destination—even though protected sidewalks along leafy streets tend to be far more pleasant than traversing large mall parking lots.

What gives? And why should your average franchise brand care?

The answer is quite simple: the real or perceived lack of parking gets us car-tethered Americans extremely riled up, it’s true. But anyone who over-emphasizes parking requirements in their site selection plans risks losing customers in fast-growing urban areas.

When new developments are proposed, which often replace surface parking, home and business owners feel like their worlds are changing without their consent.

Busy neighborhood

New midrise developments replaced parking lots, but this neighborhood is as busy as ever.

It’s not just consumers: businesses, including franchises with strict parking requirements, tend to favor suburbs, rather than urban areas with less convenient parking, even as demographics suggest cities are where it’s at in terms of future growth.

I’d argue that taking a few extra steps is good for most Americans and that rising tides lift all boats, but there are instances where the struggle is real. Nobody wants to see parking meters pop up in front of their house, and business owners are rightfully terrified customers may suddenly decide their shops are too difficult to visit.

Google “parking protest” for a glance at how widespread these feelings are. From Virginia’s Reston Town Center to Queensland, Australia, there are countless ad hoc protest groups using the not-in-my-backyard argument against new developments in their communities. These complaints are as old as the automobile itself.

Such interest groups create Facebook pages goading the public and media into thinking a given neighborhood is being ruined by development, but who does that perception hurt?

The very neighborhood and businesses they claim are being threatened.

Here in Minneapolis, I’ve watched this situation unfold after two large, high-profile developments were proposed in Dinkytown, a charming village at the edge of my alma mater, the University of Minnesota.

Replacing two convenient, highly visible parking lots with ground-level retail and multiple levels of student apartments, these proposed developments quickly spurred a “Save Dinkytown” effort the local media ate up with a spoon.

Residents claimed the neighborhood’s character was under siege and a handful of business owners joined in, saying the reduction in parking would kill their businesses. Never mind the massive multi-level parking ramp three blocks down or countless blocks of free parking at the fringes of this retail node!

Both developments were ultimately green lighted and built. Three years later, the neighborhood has more retail and residents than ever thanks to the developments and business association that worked with the city to add new metered on-street spaces to make up the spaces that were replaced.

Mike Mulrooney, president of the Dinkytown Business Alliance and owner of Blarney Pub & Grill, said the angry rabble-rousers ignored his successful efforts to add new parking spaces and promote the neighborhood to a wider audience.  

“Because the actual number of spaces has not gone down, the issue became the visibility of parking,” he said. “We’ve gone through a two-year period trying to re-educate the general public—it’s a lot harder to educate the general public on things like that than it is to scream that the sky is falling.”

David King, assistant professor of urban planning at Arizona State University, calls our over-reliance on immediately adjacent parking a collective action problem like the widespread smoking bans of the previous decade. Bar owners said the sky would fall without smokers, but that clearly hasn’t panned out, and “nobody at this point is trying to get smoking brought back into bars.”

Perhaps if we all grew more accustomed to walking a few blocks, we could wean ourselves off another unhealthy habit. “Even if all of Dinkytown could get together and say we’re going to get rid of parking and make everybody walk up to a maximum of four blocks, that would probably spook a lot of people,” King said. “Ultimately, people would realize walking four blocks is not a big deal.”

So what does this mean for business owners? I see a few bullet points: as always, perception is reality, so educate your customers and invest in neighborhood wayfinding to guide your customers to your door. Secondly, stoking emotions when new developments are proposed can be counterproductive for foot traffic. And, third, strike up a relationship with your city council member or other local representatives. Most are eager to make friends with the job creators in their districts.

Trying out my theories

To be sure I wasn’t missing the boat, I visited Dinkytown several times at different days and times to scope out the parking situation first hand. Had the neighborhood that was a staple of my college days gone to hell without my wisdom and precious disposable income? Not at all.

For my first jaunt, I came for a stroll around the hood and a weirdly appealing boba milk tea. School was back in session, it was a beautiful summer day and I was able to park within a block of my destination—no sweat.

On my second, third and fourth visits—interviewing business owners, stopping at the (still cheap!) liquor store and grabbing a burger at Five Guys—parking was plentiful and the people-watching was appealing as ever. I spied drifters playing tunes for change, one student enjoying a malt beverage from the comfort of his paper bag, serious students heading to Starbucks and Espresso Royale and sporty-looking youngsters cruising by on longboards.

The neighborhood felt exactly how I left it 12 years ago, but a little more upscale and with more choices in all categories—a growing little city within a city. Not only did added development bring in national chains, but also new independent shops that help neighborhoods maintain a unique identity.

For all the controversy about replacing the two centrally located parking lots, I had to ask what’s wrong with a short walk every now and again? This cube dweller certainly enjoyed the late-summer exercise and hangover-free flashbacks to my now-distant college days.

When new development comes to your town or neighborhood, community leaders, developers and business owners need to work together to ensure that progress doesn’t imperil the people who were there first. Also, a few wayfinding signs can go a long way.

More broadly in our world, franchisors need to loosen parking restrictions for franchisees to open up city centers and growing urban retail nodes that might be your company’s next top-producing store. As young people move to the city in greater numbers, franchised businesses need to do the same.  

Tom Kaiser, pictured on opposite page, is associate editor of Franchise Times, and writes this column about urban trends in franchising in each issue. Reach him at tkaiser@franchisetimes.com.

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