The Space Race
Plan Addresses Downtown Springfield’s Parking, Pedestrian IssuesTim Love called it “a large gap between perception and reality.”
That’s how he chose to describe what he and others say is Springfield’s actual downtown parking problem — not the lack of inventory that many believe exists.
“There is plenty of parking in downtown Springfield, and when I say plenty, I mean plenty,” Love told BusinessWest, while quickly acknowledging that many people are simply not aware of this volume, leading to that perception he mentioned — that there is no place, or no good place, to park.
The city’s real issue lies with properly managing all that parking, he said — and this means everything from more-effective marketing of that supply to better signage to bring people to it, to perhaps more-creative pricing on the various products to incentivize people to use some of that underutilized inventory.
This need for better management is spelled out in something called the Downtown Springfield Parking and Pedestrian Plan (a carefully chosen name), which was prepared by Utile Inc. Architecture + Planning, with which Love is a principal, and Nelson Nygaard, a Boston-based transportation-planning firm, and funded by Mass Development.
The plan was commissioned in response to ongoing questions from city officials about what to do with the crumbling, 41-year-old, 1,232-space Civic Center Parking Garage. And while the document addressed that matter, it went much further in its scope.
Indeed, while the plan’s headline-making proposal is a suggestion to raze the Civic Center garage, build a new facility slightly more than one-third that size on a portion of the parking lot of the TD Bank building (owned by the Springfield Redevelopment Authority), and create a 250-space surface lot on the site of the old garage, there are many other suggestions, all aimed at making the downtown easier to navigate for motorists and pedestrians alike.
These include making Dwight Street, currently one way going south, a two-way road; closing down Falcons Way (the street that runs between the Civic Center garage and MassMutual Center) for many events, thereby creating what Love and others called a “Yawkey Way Effect,” in reference to the street outside Fenway Park in Boston where crowds gather before and after games; and improving the Market Street pedestrian way.
As for the specific plans for the garage and its proposed replacement, it would actually reduce the inventory of parking downtown by roughly 600 spaces, said Jason Schrieber, a principal with Nelson Neygaard.
But given the supply that exists downtown and the large percentage (more than half) of that supply that’s not being used, the city can easily absorb that loss, he said. Meanwhile, moving large amounts of parking even another block from the convention center could spur additional development in that area, he noted.
Using Boston and Northampton as examples, Schreiber said there are benefits to putting a few blocks of retail and hospitality venues between parking facilities and the front doors of event venues.
“If you look at the Academy of Music [in Northampton], there’s no parking there,” he explained. “You have to park in the city’s garage and walk past a number of shops and restaurants to get to the Academy of Music. That’s just one small, local example of what you see in many older downtowns.”
Kevin Kennedy, Springfield’s chief development officer, said, with the plan in hand, city leaders will closely consider all its points, from its basic premise — that perception is the real issue — to its major recommendation, and decide when and how to proceed.
While he agrees with some suggestions, he said there are questions about whether taking 600 spaces out of the inventory may hinder additional development, whether a 250-space surface lot on the footprint of the old garage is the best option for that site, and other matters.
And if they’re answered effectively, the city must then pursue financing for a plan that currently carries a price tag approaching $17 million.
For this issue, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at the parking plan, thus shedding some light on what has become an important, and also complex, issue for many urban centers.
Reading Between the Lines
Matt Hollander described May 19 as “a great day for Springfield.”
There were three college commencement ceremonies going on that afternoon — AIC and Westfield State University at the MassMutual Center, which he serves as general manager, and Western New England University School of Law in Symphony Hall — as well as other, much smaller events in the convention center, he said. The various ceremonies and gatherings brought thousands of people downtown — as well as some serious gridlock.
It was the kind of day that would prompt questions about the wisdom of removing 600 parking spaces from the area around the convention center, he noted, while adding quickly that these are not the kinds of days on which to base one’s parking inventory.
“We don’t have many days like that Saturday,” he explained. “To build for your worse-case scenario doesn’t make any sense.”
“No one plans their system to the 100-year flood — it’s just not worth it,” he said, adding that Springfield and communities like it should create inventory sufficient to meet typical needs during peak weekday use — 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Going by that standard, Springfield is using not quite half (46%) the spaces in garages, on the street, and in surface lots within a 5-minute walk from the convention center, according to the report, and 51% of those within a 2.5-minute walk.
The ideal utilization rate, the identified target for most communities, is 85%, said Schrieber. But few communities actually come close to that number, he noted, adding that Springfield is in many ways typical of Northeast urban centers, although its utilization rates are even lower than those found in most other cities.
“I’ve found literally one place that actually has a parking-supply problem,” he told BusinessWest. “Every other community has plenty of supply, far more than anyone would have ever thought. We’re talking about hundreds or thousands of empty spaces at the peak hour of the day, and it all has to do with the need for better management programs.
“And those programs are starting to happen in various places around the country,” he continued. “There’s a couple of places in New England where they’re moving in the right direction. Nashua, N.H. is one of the better examples; they’ve implemented some fairly progressive management fixes in recent years.”
Elaborating, he said Nashua has implemented creative pricing policies, whereby busy streets are priced somewhat higher than those a little further away from the center of downtown, while parking in locations that would be considered remote is free or close to it.
“They used to price everything the same,” he explained. “When they changed, parking suddenly opened up; employees were willing to park in the cheaper spaces, and the prime customers who wanted the front door were willing to pay more for it.”
Such dynamic pricing programs can be a tool for improving overall parking management, said Corey Zehngebot, an urban designer and planner at Utile, noting that they help communities increase their utilization rates while reducing the kind of congestion Springfield saw on May 19.
On the Spot
But parking management starts with having the proper amount of inventory, said Love, returning to the study and its main recommendation — building a new garage much smaller than the existing facility and taking several hundred spaces out of the inventory.
“When you have too much parking, there are other negative effects,” he explained. “There are too many vacant lots; if you have too many surface parking lots and garages in your downtown, it’s not an attractive place.
“To always be well ahead of demand for the busy times … that kind of parking landscape is going to dominate a downtown, and you don’t want that,” he continued. “Providence figured this out 15 years ago; to make a downtown an asset, it has to be a place that people want to visit, and not just because of specific targeted destinations.”
Still another aspect of effective parking management is putting the inventory in the right places, said Zehngebot, noting that having 1,200 spaces literally across the street from the convention center, while convenient for visitors, isn’t exactly conducive to generating commerce and additional vitality in the city’s downtown.
A garage on the TD Bank lot would help create development opportunities along the block between Harrison Avenue and Falcons Way — and even on the site of the old garage itself, she said, while also facilitating efforts to create that aforementioned Yawkey Way look and feel on Falcon Way and bringing new life to a somewhat tired Market Street.
“There are several somewhat hidden corridors, like Market Street, which are pedestrian only,” she noted. “By increasing foot traffic through some of these places, we can help unlock some of their potential.”
Love agreed, and summoned the phrase “double duty” to describe what the authors of the parking garage have in mind for the proposed new garage. Elaborating, he said that it will not only meet parking-supply needs, but also funnel pedestrian areas, especially the Market Street corridor, while also perhaps serving as a catalyst for new retail and hospitality-related venues in that area.
“If we put the smaller garage on the TD Bank lot, with its lobby more or less oriented toward Market Street, we’ll be taking people who before would just get out of their cars and go directly to the MassMutal Center and not really experience the city, and require them to walk down Market Street to get to the convention center, and actually have a better experience,” he explained. “That’s already a well-scaled, well-designed space [Market Street], and we get that for free. At at the same time, the new garage could incentivize retail activity because it will have a measurable audience, a measurable demographic.”
Kennedy said city officials will closely consider the parking plan’s many recommendations, and as they do so, they will attempt to answer several questions. One of the biggest, he noted, is why the parking-utilization rate in Springfield is so low.
To be determined is whether the problem lies with awareness — do people actually know these spaces exist? — or resistance to using some of the city’s supply because of locations that might be considered poorly lit or unsafe, or still-sluggish economic conditions and a resulting high commercial real-estate vacancy rate. Or is it a combination of all these and other factors?
Also to be determined is whether a new 400-space garage (where 200 spaces must be reserved for TD Bank employees) and a 250-space surface lot on the site of the old garage will be sufficient to attract new development and handle the needs of the new businesses and residential units the city hopes to add in the years to come.
“We have a lot to look at and consider, and we need to continue the discussion with the downtown business community,” said Kennedy. “And we need to know exactly what we want before we move on financing.”
Casting Their Lot
Summing up the situation for Springfield, Love told BusinessWest that something has to be done about the Civic Center Parking Garage — either shoring it up at a high cost, something he wouldn’t recommend, or replacing it.
The key is for officials to get ahead of the situation and basically control the outcome, he continued, adding that the city still has an opportunity to do that. And while addressing the fate of that aging structure, the goal should not be to merely replace parking spaces, but to take major strides in the direction of more-effective management of the city’s parking inventory.
“Parking can and should be an integral part of economic development downtown,” said Kennedy, hinting strongly that the city has many questions to answer and steps to take before its parking supply can effectively play such a role.
George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]