Our city has been thrust into a debate over the future of city-owned parking facilities in downtown Birmingham. It has stirred up big questions: What’s the role of publicly-owned parking? Is it being managed to its highest and best use? Is it more valuable as a long-term asset or an immediate cash sale? I’m glad we are having this conversation as a community. Frankly, it’s about time. The way our City leverages its parking assets has implications for the future economic and financial health of the city. And not just downtown, I mean the whole city.
REV Birmingham’s mission is to create vibrant commercial districts. Through decades of driving downtown growth, we know this to be true: the current debate should focus on how the City’s parking assets best supports the growth of downtown and the city. To that end, we should be asking:
Why is the city even in the parking business? – American life changed after WWII. Mass automobile ownership, cheap suburban land, and new construction techniques put traditional central business districts at a competitive disadvantage. Dense historic downtowns lost employers and retail shoppers to suburban office parks and malls, largely because they could not offer users copious parking at low or no cost. Many cities and downtown redevelopment authorities began to get into the parking development business to keep aging downtowns competitive with shiny new suburbs. Birmingham entered the parking race when it asked the state to establish the Birmingham Parking Authority in 1972. In short, Birmingham’s parking decks were purpose-built as a tool to spur economic development downtown, and that tool is still needed today.
How do downtowns answer and manage parking demands today? Despite changing cultural and demographic dynamics, most downtown development still must account for where and how people will park. In most cities, the expectation of employees, visitors and shoppers is that parking should be available, convenient, and affordable (sometimes free!). Some cities own and manage parking. In others, the cities own structures and hire professional parking companies to manage them. In cities like Nashville and Memphis, Business Improvement Districts – nonprofit entities that raise funds from property owners to fund supplemental services – are involved in parking. In those cities, surplus parking revenue is directed to public mobility services like shuttles and bikesharing.
Where does the city get its benefit from a parking system? Since cities are in the parking business to support economic growth, parking should be a tool to level the playing field for downtowns competing with the ‘burbs. It should prevent developers from tearing down other buildings for ugly, underproducing parking lots. And, most importantly, parking should help grow City revenue from occupational taxes and sales taxes generated by downtown employees and visitors. The return for the City is not from direct parking deck revenue, it is from economic activity made possible by the decks.
What is the opportunity in downtown Birmingham parking? The City of Birmingham is the single largest owner of parking in the City Center. Consistently, building and business owners express frustration with how the current system is managed. Studies show parking spaces in Birmingham decks go unused, meanwhile, potential downtown tenants go elsewhere because they can’t secure dedicated parking. Over the last 25 years, four major downtown master planning efforts have reached the same conclusion: City parking is not optimized to catalyze growth. With simple management tweaks, we can increase the supply of parking – and grow our economy – without building a single new space.
At REV Birmingham, we seek a vibrant city center, an authentic place where jobs and businesses grow, where there are great civic spaces and streetscapes, where historic buildings are preserved alongside new mixed-use development and a diverse residential neighborhood. To achieve this, we must do parking differently. We are leaving opportunity on the table. We applaud the new focus on our parking system and encourage debate. Let’s not let an opportunity elude us.
David Fleming is CEO of REV Birmingham.