Old Town facing an old issue: problems with parking

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Parking is available along the streets in Old Town, including Turner Street (pictured). Photo by Kaley Fech.

Anyone who has ever been to a city has more than likely experienced the frustrations that come with trying to find parking.

This problem is not isolated to bigger cities; even smaller communities experience such issues. More than likely, any place that attracts larger numbers of people will face struggles when it comes to parking. Old Town is no exception.

During her day job, Jamie Schriner-Hooper, president of the board of directors for the Old Town Commercial Association, works in communities across the state. She said she has never been in a town that did not bring up the issue of parking.

Some believe there is not adequate parking in the Old Town area. Currently, there is one large public parking lot, Lot 56, located off of East Grand River Avenue at the end of Turner Street. Parking is also available along the streets of Old Town, and several businesses provide private parking for customers.

Lot 56 provides free two hour parking for those visiting Old Town. Source: Lansing, Michigan official website. Graphic by Kaley Fech.

Lot 56 provides free two hour parking for those visiting Old Town. Source: Lansing, Michigan official website. Graphic by Kaley Fech.

Jennie Hinze, a business owner in Old Town, said in an email that she would like to see parking improvements because customers are often given tickets if they park in the lot for longer than two hours, and the only alternative is to park on the streets.

Schriner-Hooper said that while this is sometimes true, it is also avoidable.

“The lot is two-hour parking,” Schriner-Hooper said. “If people would like to park for the day, they can purchase a pass from the city.”

Ted Stuart and his husband run Metro Retro, which is located on East Grand River Avenue. Recently, they experienced their own parking problems.

“They took away two of our parking spots out in front of our store,” said Stuart. “Our customers would park there. Now they won’t be able to. In the past we’ve already had customers complain that there’s not enough parking.”

To clarify, the Old Town Commercial Association is not responsible for the loss of the spots. The OTCA has no direct control over parking; it is managed by the City of Lansing.

However, Schriner-Hooper said the OTCA, business and property owners, etc. are hoping to meet with the city in order to discuss the best plan to address parking in the community.

Cars line Turner Street. Photo by Kaley Fech.

Cars line Turner Street. Photo by Kaley Fech.

“We’re hoping to meet with the city in the very near future and talk about what we can do to improve parking,” Schriner-Hooper said. “We’re all in it together and trying to make our community the best place we possibly can for everyone who comes to Old Town – whether it’s for a few hours or to live.”

Brian Ohm, a professor in the Department of Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said that parking lots or ramps competing for the use of land that’s available can be an issue. However, he said that economics is often the critical factor when it comes to parking space.

“Surface lots may be inexpensive to build, but as the value of the land increases, there is often an economic incentive for the property owner to want to convert a parking lot to a higher and better use,” Ohm said. “Building a parking ramp is expensive. Depending on the area of the country, it may cost $15,000 or $20,000 per stall to build a parking ramp.”

Schriner-Hooper also believes that there are some misconceptions about the parking availability in Old Town.

“Although the lot is rarely full, many people think that they need a parking spot directly in front of the business they’re planning to visit,” Schriner-Hooper said. “If they can’t find a spot right out front, often they assume there isn’t any parking. The reality is that if you go to any big box store, you’re actually usually parking several blocks away by the time you walk from your car to the item you’re purchasing. This is a common mindset we need to help people get beyond.”

Schriner-Hooper already has a couple of ideas on how to do just that.

“One idea to help people get beyond the perceived issues is to actually help make them aware of the distance between where they park at Meijer and the location of the milk cooler vs. the back of Lot 56 and maybe Meat [Southern B.B.Q. & Carnivore Cuisine]. It’s probably about the same distance” Schriner-Hooper said. “We also talked years ago about doing radio ads with someone walking and having them explain what they see when they are walking through Old Town vs. what they see when they are walking through the mall parking lot. I think it could be a fun awareness campaign.”

An open spot along East Grand River Avenue in Old Town. Photo by Kaley Fech.

An open spot along East Grand River Avenue in Old Town. Photo by Kaley Fech.

The festivals held in Old Town are instances when parking becomes scarce. However, there are ways around that, too.

“We often close down the parking lot to host our festivals, which means that we’re losing our parking while needing additional parking at the same time,” Schriner-Hooper said. “Despite that, people park in the surrounding neighborhoods, take the bus, ride bikes, Uber, and walk in.”

According to Ohm, some parking issues can be alleviated without actually increasing parking space.

“Some communities have used transportation demand strategies like providing subsidized bus passes to encourage people to not use their cars,” Ohm said. “Another strategy is to encourage shared parking by mixing uses — a parking lot might be used by office workers during the day and a brew pub at night … an office parking lot that sits largely vacant after 5 pm every night and on weekends and a brew pub parking lot that sits largely vacant during the weekday before it opens.”

In the future, Ohm and others involved in urban planning believe parking needs may all but disappear.

“With the rapid advancement of driverless vehicles, people involved in urban planning are rethinking the need for parking,” Ohm said. “Driverless vehicles will reduce the demand for parking. Some approaches advocate shared vehicles, for example driverless Uber vehicles, where people will not own as many cars any more. For those people who own driverless vehicles, there might be a remote parking lot several miles away or the car might even return to a person’s house while they are working during the day.”

For the time being, Old Town will face its parking challenges as they arise. Schriner-Hooper believes the need for additional parking is a good problem to have.

“When people have to walk a block or two to get to their location, often they’ll discover new shops or restaurants to try on their next visit,” Schriner-Hooper said. “If there’s a perception of parking being an issue because it’s too busy and you can’t find a spot, that’s a good thing. It means the community is busy and thriving.”

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