How much parking does downtown A2 really need?

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A privately owned, publicly operated parking lot takes up an entire city block bordered by First, Huron, Ashley and Washington streets. | Jim McBee, The Ann

Some say the city’s growth demands more places to park. Others say less parking would actually invigorate downtown.

By Amy Crawford

Ever since the city’s shiny new meters cost a nickel an hour, grumbling about parking downtown has been among Ann Arborites’ favorite pastimes.

It’s a fitting history, as this was among the first cities in the country to establish a paid parking scheme. In 1945, newly elected Mayor William E. Brown Jr. recognized that parking wasn’t just about cars; a shortage of spaces in the booming post-war city was snarling traffic, and that threatened to strangle the downtown economy. Brown hit upon using revenue from on-street meters to fund the construction of lots and municipal garages — an idea that was soon copied by cities from Portland to Miami.

For locals, Mayor Brown’s vision took some getting used to. In the early days of their long-running affair with the automobile, many motorists were outraged by the very idea that parking wasn’t free. By 1970, shopping centers on the city’s periphery were luring these customers with convenient seas of asphalt. (“By the time you drive around looking for a space downtown, you’re already at Arborland,” one man grumbled to The Ann Arbor News). So to help Main Street compete, the city built more garages and paved more lots.

“From the beginning of the system, the question has always been, do we have enough parking to provide for the kind of community that we want to be?” said Susan Pollay, executive director of the Downtown Development Authority, the quasi-governmental body that since 1992 has managed Ann Arbor’s municipal parking system, which has 7,815 spaces. “This is an ongoing and perpetual question.”

That dilemma was on the agenda one Friday morning in late June, as the 12 members of the DDA’s board, who are appointed by the mayor and City Council, gathered in the basement multipurpose room at the downtown public library for an annual retreat. For four hours, the group pored over maps and numbers, reviewing its approach to parking management and weighing whether and where to build new parking.

At stake was far more than the logistics of automobile storage.

“Parking is our way, as a community, of having a conversation with ourselves about who we are, where we’re going, what we want to do,” Pollay said. “There’s no other justification for why it’s such a focus of our dialogue, except that it’s really a conversation about the development of the city.”

After sewers and trash collection, parking may be the least glamorous element of urban life. Like managing waste, managing parking can be thankless — often, the only indication that you’re doing it right is dwindling complaints. But striking the right balance between not enough and too much is crucial for keeping a city running smoothly. And in an era of rapidly developing technology and shifting social and political values, it is also a proxy for an entire roster of questions, about what we want from our cities, and about who — residents, commuters, pedestrians, drivers, rich, poor — can find a place here.


The “Y” Lot across the street from the library in downtown Ann Arbor | Jim McBee, The Ann

Growing concern

Less than 200 feet from where the DDA board was meeting, the system’s youngest parking facility, the 711-spot Library Lane Parking Structure, was doing a brisk business. The clean, modern garage, with six electric-vehicle charging stations and sunlight bathing all four subterranean stories, was completed in 2012 at a cost of $50 million. Although it’s currently capped with a small surface lot, if a deal recently approved by City Council goes through, the half block above the garage will one day host one of Ann Arbor’s tallest buildings, a 17-story tower of offices, hotel rooms and apartments.

And that, argues Frank Wilhelme, will be a nightmare for downtown parking.

“This is going to make a very difficult, burdensome parking situation worse,” Wilhelme said, over coffee at the Sweetwaters on East Liberty.

Wilhelme, who has lived in Ann Arbor for nearly five decades, is a supporter of the Library Green Conservancy, a group that advocates for turning the library lot into a public park. His opposition to the proposed sale is based on concerns about the pace and scale of downtown development, and the need for what he calls “a central convening space.” But the current deal also includes a long-term lease of 361 parking spaces, 4.6 percent of the public parking system’s current capacity. Looking at those figures, the conservancy realized that the specter of parking problems offered perhaps the best opportunity to sway public opinion.

“I went door to door and floor to floor downtown,” said Wilhelme. “I got a very welcoming reception.”

Before council approved the deal in April, Wilhelme said, he gathered some 1,700 signatures from local residents hoping to put the library lot development up for a vote as a ballot measure. Since then, he has collected 300 more. Many who signed the petition, he said, were managers tasked with helping employees secure monthly parking permits.

Wilhelme’s agenda may extend beyond parking, but his campaign tapped into growing concern among downtown business-owners that parking spots are becoming harder for their employees and customers to find.

“I think it was a bad move,” said Tom Murray, president of the Main Street Area Association, which opposes long-term parking leases for the Library Lane developer. Murray, who owns Conor O’Neill’s, a popular Irish pub and restaurant on South Main Street, says that the downtown parking problem is “not as bad as people think,” but when it comes to luring customers who expect access and convenience, perception is as important as reality.

So what does Main Street want from the DDA?

“Don’t just say we’re going to extend hours and raise prices,” he said. “We need creative options.”


The city’s Ashley Street Lot | Jim McBee, The Ann

Reducing demand

In 2015, on the hunt for creative options, the DDA commissioned a study by Nelson\Nygaard, a transportation planning company with offices nationwide. The study projected that demand for parking downtown during peak times — weekdays at lunchtime, Friday evenings — is likely to increase by some 860 spots over the next three years. But while that figure might be the best argument for expanding the parking system — and fast — it came along with a caveat: With clever management, Nelson\Nygaard asserted, “achievable modal shifts may fully offset projected parking demand increases.”

Behind that jargon is a tantalizing, if controversial, assertion: If the DDA can get enough people to bike, walk, share rides or take the bus, demand for parking may actually go down, even as businesses and residents continue to move in.

The DDA has already succeeded in persuading many people who go downtown to leave their cars at home. According to the 2013 survey data Nelson\Nygaard used in its study, only about 35 percent of downtown workers drive alone all the way to work, while 22 percent bike or walk all the way and 28 percent take the bus. The share of commuters choosing transit was on the rise, a phenomenon Nelson\Nygaard credited to the DDA’s discount go!pass, offered since 2005 as a benefit to downtown businesses. The go!pass, the consultant estimated, was responsible for reducing downtown traffic by some 820 vehicles a day — nearly the capacity of the garage at Ann and Ashley streets.

“We have a really robust transit system for a city of our size, and that system has saved our city from building thousands of parking spaces,” said Ward 2 Councilmember Kirk Westphal, who bikes or takes the bus to his downtown office. “We don’t want to lose jobs because of parking, but I’m not going to get on the ‘build more parking’ bandwagon at the expense of taxpayers unless we’ve pushed every other option.”

Options on the table include sticks as well as carrots. Beyond expanding bike infrastructure and bus routes, which would primarily offset daytime parking usage, the DDA is also exploring raising fees for more popular locations, a move that would encourage price-conscious drivers to park farther away, leaving prime spots open for those who prize convenience above all.

Raising the price of monthly garage permits may also encourage people to explore different options, potentially cutting down on a 2,600-spot waiting list that continues to provoke anxiety among downtown businesses. (That figure, Pollay said, looks scarier than the reality. For one thing, people can sign up for waiting lists on several garages, so the overall waiting list counts many applicants more than once. And drivers on the waiting list are still able to park. “Generally, they’re already parking in the system, but they’re paying by the hour,” Pollay explains. “It’s not that they’re not here for lack of permit.”)

While the idea of charging more for parking may make downtown business owners nervous, this overall approach of managing demand by adjusting prices is considered mainstream among transportation planners. More generally, it is unclear whether car culture will retain its dominance over the next few decades. On one hand, vehicle miles traveled per capita rose in 2015 and 2016, after a decade-long dip in driving rates. But U.S. Department of Transportation data shows young adults drove 23 percent fewer miles per capita in 2009 than in 2001, and a AAA survey found only about half of teens today will get their driver’s licenses by the time they’re 18. Nationwide, according to census data, the number of carless households has been gradually increasing since 2009, after declining every year since 1960.

Still, the idea that Ann Arbor can bring more people and fewer cars downtown has been met with skepticism from some local leaders.

“Are things changing? Yes,” said Ward 2 Councilmember Jane Lumm. “But the assumption that people are going to abandon their autos, and that’s going to negate this demand, is quite a leap of faith. … In my mind, not meeting the parking demand represents a threat to the economic vitality of downtown.”


A privately owned parking lot on Fourth Avenue in downtown Ann Arbor | Jim McBee, The Ann

Too much parking?

Lumm may be right that too little parking could hurt Ann Arbor’s economy — in theory, if customers who need to drive have trouble parking downtown, chances increase that they’ll head straight to the mall next time, while large employers may be lured away to suburban office parks. Studies have also found that as many as a third of cars in congested city traffic are searching for parking, which means a shortage of spots could contribute to greenhouse emissions.

Too much parking, however, may be even worse. According to research by Norman Garrick, a civil engineering professor at the University of Connecticut who studies automobile infrastructure, excess parking is a drag on a city’s budget — because land used for parking brings in less tax revenue — and a job killer, because it takes up space that might otherwise be occupied by offices, factories, restaurants or retail. Abundant parking also reinforces a culture of driving even for short trips … which leads cities to construct even more parking.

“Parking is horrible,” Garrick said, “and it’s wide-ranging in its impacts, because it’s what makes cities become car-centric in the first place. You’ve fragmented the urban fabric and made it uncomfortable for walking.”

Garrick acknowledges business-owners’ concern that potential customers and employees who can’t find parking will simply go elsewhere, but he argues that it can’t be allowed to drive urban planning decisions.

“Overcoming that fear is the most difficult part of moving forward in a lot of cities,” he said. “But usually, what happens is the exact opposite: Getting rid of parking leads to a more vibrant downtown.”

Ann Arbor, with its compact, walkable core, may not have as many “parking craters” as some of the cities Garrick has studied (New Haven, Conn., where parking increased by 250 percent between the 1950s and 2000s, is an especially egregious example), but even here there are plenty of otherwise prime lots dedicated to cars.

“We need parking to some degree, but parking lots are the greatest waste of urban real estate,” said Ryan Tobias, the voice behind local blog TreeDownTown, which maintains a top 10 of surface lots that ought to be developed into something more exciting.

On a tour of the spots on his hit list one recent weekday morning, Tobias paused at the Brown Block, bordered by Ashley, Huron, First and Washington streets. The former site of a Chevrolet dealership owned by none other than Mayor Brown himself, the privately owned lot has room for 168 cars. According to DDA data, it’s usually more than 90 percent full at midday and on weekend evenings. Tobias yearned to see it occupied instead by housing, shops and maybe a hotel.

“The average person in Ann Arbor, a visiting parent, maybe — you’re going to be like, ‘Oh, I guess downtown ended,’” he said, staring out over two acres of cars baking in the late morning sun.

Then there is the so-called Palio Lot, next to the restaurant at Main and William. (“This corner is brutal,” Tobias said. “Parking lot … parking lot … gas station.”) And the lots along Huron Street, which contribute to the general, and perhaps accurate, impression that the corridor is intended for cars rather than people.

“It’s alarming when you have a walkable downtown street, and you’re looking in windows — and suddenly it’s a lot,” said Tobias, a U-M alum who moved back from Chicago in 2014. “It detracts from the walkability and the visual appeal of the street.”

Tobias’s observations are backed up by several recent studies into how the urban environment affects us. For example, psychologists at the University of Waterloo in Ontario have found that when a street is lined with complex, interesting building façades — think boutiques on South Main Street — people walking by experience less stress and better moods. The blank wall of a parking garage or the empty waste of a surface lot have the opposite effect.

“I think many, many people, across all demographics, are interested in cities and walkability and the vitality that comes with it,” Tobias said. “Not everybody … and there are plenty of people who want more of a car-based thing — to each his own. But I think here we should accentuate what we’ve got.”


Ryan Tobias has a list of downtown Ann Arbor parking lots he’d like to see redeveloped. | Jim McBee, The Ann

Adding spaces

Back at the DDA retreat, Pollay broke the board into small groups. As a lunchtime icebreaker — and, perhaps, to give board members a break from the barrage of occupancy statistics, budget figures and demand projections — she asked them to share with their table whether they ever had a secret parking spot that no one else knew about. They chuckled, munching pizza as they reminisced about unmarked alleys and hidden spots tucked down by the railroad tracks, tapping into the very American sense that one should be able to count on a place to park that’s cheap, convenient and guaranteed. It’s easy to overlook that that’s only a possibility because our forefathers decided to invest in automotive infrastructure.

Freedom and individualism are major themes in the story Americans tell ourselves about cars. But a city is not merely a conglomeration of individuals. Here, anyone’s needs and desires must be balanced against those of everyone else. Parking is part of that, and its availability determines whether people who prefer to drive — or must, because of age or disability — find a city welcoming, useful and pleasant, or whether they decide to stick to the suburbs.

On the other hand, overemphasis on accommodating drivers may make a city less friendly toward people who get around in other ways, either because they can’t afford a car, or because they see health and environmental benefits to not driving. That these two groups often belong to different generations is no small part of the conflicts that tend to arise around parking.

Just as in Mayor Brown’s day, transportation across America is changing, and that’s especially true in Ann Arbor. A regional transit plan that could lead to train service or rapid bus routes between here, Ypsilanti and Detroit was almost approved by ballot initiative last year, and backers hope it may have a better chance in the future. Car sharing companies like Maven and Zipcar are expanding, ride-hailing apps like Lyft and Uber are increasingly popular, and there are now more than a dozen ArborBike bike-sharing kiosks. Meanwhile, disruption looms as tech companies test driverless cars.

“There’s so much changing!” DDA board Chair Rishi Narayan said. Referring to U-M’s pilot launch of a driverless shuttle on North Campus, he noted, “There’s an autonomous bus on the streets of Ann Arbor now!”

In the end, the board — split 7 to 5 — decided to move toward adding to the parking system, with those in favor agreeing that the best option lay with the garage at Ann and Ashley streets. Currently six floors and 827 spaces, it was designed to carry another three levels, or 375 additional spaces, an expansion that would cost roughly $18 million (to be funded by revenue-backed bonds) and take a year to complete once construction begins.

The board members would spend the next few months considering the financial and logistical issues, before finally voting on October 4 to move forward. Pending City Council’s approval of a site plan, construction on the garage should begin in July of next year, and last through September 2019.

It was a considered decision, but it’s still hard to know how things might change after the new floors open. Like Mayor Brown, who took office at the dawn of an automotive golden age and realized all the new Oldsmobiles and Pontiacs would need to park somewhere, today’s city leaders can’t know exactly how their decisions will change the city — or whether people 75 years from now will still be agonizing about parking in downtown Ann Arbor.


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  1. Avatar

    Chris Simmons

    November 6, 2017 at 10:40 am

    The Library Lane lot picture in this article is not the Library Lane lot, but instead, a lot owned by Dennis Dahlmann that is currently in dispute with the City known as the Y lot. The Library Lane structure runs underground between Fifth and Division.

    • Jim McBee

      Jim McBee

      November 6, 2017 at 11:35 am

      You’re right. I’ve fixed that and one other photo location. Thanks for keeping us straight!

  2. Avatar

    Anthony Veit

    November 6, 2017 at 1:32 pm

    While you’re at it, the “Palio Lot” is at the NE corner of Main & WILLIAM, not Main and Washington.

  3. Avatar

    Alan Haber

    November 9, 2017 at 11:32 am

    While the challenge of enough car parking for a vibrant, accessible downtown business is the way DDA and the Mayor’s minions pose the question….your article has left out the other variable and value, which the DDA and the Mayor similarly denigrate. Public space and a “Center of the City” designed as a downtown destination welcoming for everyone is now the option denied and ignored in the “Parking vs Building” debate. The Petition to put that question on the Ballot, for the voters to decide, is again being circulated. The first circulation of the Petition for Redress of our Grievance that the City Corporation is trying to sell our public land was wrongly repressed, by the City Attorney using a local practice to abridge a Federally guaranteed Constitution Right (illegal since the 1871 Civi Rights Act outlawed such practice.)

    An article on “Community vs Corporation” or “Commons vs Commerce” might be a proper follow-up to the parking discussion. People who want to see and hear this discussion in public should sign and circulate the Petition. Petition designates the public land on the block bounded by Fifth Avenue, William, Division and Liberty Streets for development as an urban central park and civic center commons…to be known as the Center of the City. For more information and to help: public.annarbor@gmail.com Petition sheets are at 531 Third Street

  4. Avatar


    March 3, 2018 at 10:50 am

    It is valuable and important to acknowledge the following point:
    “…psychologists at the University of Waterloo in Ontario have found that when a street is lined with complex, interesting building façades — think boutiques on South Main Street — people walking by experience less stress and better moods. The blank wall of a parking garage or the empty waste of a surface lot have the opposite effect.”

    Then also acknowledge that this sort of development is NOT what’s being built (nor proposed) anywhere downtown (with one exception- the development of the former King’s Chosen furniture store).

    The tall buildings being proposed, and built, recently including, for instance, the DDA’s Connecting William Street proposal, are no more interesting at street level than a typical parking structure. It’s as if DDA and council have accepted that we no longer possess the technological, nor financial, wherewithal to construct interesting (timeless?) buildings. Only erector-set style vertical human storage facilities.

    This vertical development does not add to the interest but is rather more parasitic (and of course meant only for those who can afford interesting downtown lifestyles) feeding off of the street level variety and the vitality our downtown has been providing since I was a kid- when anyone could afford it- constructed carefully over generations. Parasites don’t generally improve the health of the host, either, even wealthy ones, but now it belongs to them. They’ll eat this town and move on.

    As Mr. Haber’s quixotic quest has proven (not that I thought the Library Lot was a great place for a downtown plaza) planning ideas and desires from ordinary citizens are quite unwelcome.