“Don’t follow leaders,
Watch the parkin’ meters.”
– Bob Dylan, in “Subterranean Homesick Blues.”
At last, downtown Santa Rosa has a buzz. Unfortunately, it’s the sound of city officials talking about what they might do someday, somehow, somewhere to re-energize the downtown.
In the latest random event, officials apparently determined there was someone left in Sonoma County who hadn’t been left sputtering by parking enforcement in the downtown. So, they invited a UCLA urban planning expert to urge the City Council to adopt another increase in parking fees.
That should add to the buzz.
Professor Donald Shoup’s ideas on performance-based parking fees and on the reduction of off-street parking deserve to be part of a broader conversation about the downtown.
But, given the city’s credibility when it comes to parking, his suggestions are more likely to be stored away with all the other big ideas that came to nothing.
After all these years, we recognize the pattern. City council members want to be viewed as innovators – so long as they don’t have to spend money, make a hard decision or otherwise deal with controversy.
It was only a year ago that a team of urban design experts from the Mayor’s Institute on City Design and the National Endowment for the Arts was invited to visit the city and make recommendations.
As others have, the panel suggested reuniting Old Courthouse Square, reclaiming the monolith that is the former AT&T building, installing walkable streetscapes, embracing art and creating vibrant public spaces – and financing it all through new taxes and parking fees.
Controversial ideas. End of story.
Over the years, there have been blue-ribbon committees, visiting panels of architects and a variety of organizations, all tasked to “re-imagine” the downtown.
Somewhere inside City Hall, there is a room full of worthy recommendations. The lights are turned out, and the door is locked.
In the intervening years, downtown investors came and went, frustrated by the inactivity and red tape. A downtown institution, Traverso’s delicatessen, gave up and moved to Fountaingrove.
And, after years of waiting for a long-promised food and wine center on Railroad Square, Santa Rosa Junior College decided to build a culinary arts center across from its campus on Mendocino Avenue.
If these big expectations that went bust caused people to be disillusioned, well, there’s history to explain it.
There’s nothing wrong with big ideas. In cities such as Portland, Oregon and Boulder, Colorado, big ideas have been transformative.
But talking about them and pursuing them are not the same thing.
So, let me offer one Santa Rosan’s opinion about what city officials need to do before inviting more experts to town:
-Accept the responsibility to explain why the downtown’s vitality is important to the economic well-being and the quality of life for everyone who lives in Santa Rosa.
Nothing is going to improve in a town where too many people say: I don’t care what happens in the downtown. I never go there.
At the last, every city is defined and judged by the vibrancy of its downtown.
-Move past the dogma that attaches itself to every urban design issue.
Pasadena finds success with parking fees keyed to demand, Professor Shoup said. But other cities – Healdsburg, for example – finds success with free parking.
Off-street parking, as Shoup said, can be costly and unsightly. But it also can be necessary. Shoup boasted of efforts to discourage off-street parking on the UCLA campus and in Pasadena, but both places depend to some degree on off-street parking.
What’s the right number of spaces for Santa Rosa? That’s the question that matters. The circumstances in every city are different. It’s illogical to assume otherwise.
– Bring a success story to the downtown. After so many disappointments, Santa Rosans won’t become more optimistic until they see tangible results.
-Make sure Santa Rosa is positioned to respond to dramatic changes in the housing market.
In a recent conversation about local real estate values, a friend reminded me that it is not just an ailing economy that is depressing home values. In the U.S., the demand for large-lot, suburban houses is declining.
There are two reasons: First, having raised their children, aging Baby Boomers now want to exchange the hassles of suburban life for the smaller scale and convenient amenities available in pedestrian-friendly cities. Second, younger households are smaller; they don’t want a large house on a large lot, and they are less able to afford the price.
Writing in The Atlantic magazine last year, Christopher B. Leinberger, professor of urban planning at the University of Michigan, said the demographics tell the story. Families with children once made up more than half of all households. By the year 2000, they represented a third of the households and by 2025, only about one in four households will be families with children.
“For 60 years,” he wrote, “Americans have pushed steadily into the suburbs, transforming the landscape and (until recently) leaving cities behind. But today the pendulum is swinging back toward urban living, and there are many reasons to believe this swing will continue.“
For all its talk about the rejuvenation of the downtown, it would be ironic if Santa Rosa wasn’t prepared to welcome this new prosperity.