Downtown Growing Pains

highdensity.pngCedar Falls downtown is America's bucolic Main Street. Nearly written off in the 80's, business proprietors, property owners, and stakeholders of every kind organized in 1987 around the principles of the Main Street America program and focused on Economic Restructuring, Design, Organization and Promotion. Saying it has been a remarkable success would be an understatement. 

Starting in the 80's and through the 90's, business and property owners aligned around a vision to remake the downtown experience. Property values were depressed and represented an entry point for new investors. Low property values translated into lower rents. Lower rents attracted the new entrepreneurs including boutique shops, coffee houses, dining and entertainment venues which complemented legacy businesses that remained through the tough times. Daring infrastructure including serpentine streets enhanced the original pedestrian experience with paver walk-ways, living landscapes and public art. Today, it is hard to find a storefront or an open apartment. Demand is outstripping supply which is driving up property values, rents and parking demand. 

Success breeds new challenges and opportunities... residents, businesses and consumers want to be downtown. There are not enough storefronts, dwelling units and vehicular parking to serve the demand. Stores are an evolving mix of products and services to meet consumer demand. Many persons, millennials and baby boomers are looking for a new housing product, smaller dwelling units, low-maintenance, and amenities. People want to park to be around this vitality.

What is government to do about it? Local government plays an important planning and zoning role. But it no more defines the number of storefronts or residential spaces as it does the parking. Downtown zoning, C3, doesn't require developer parking. Nor does C3 stipulate the city provide parking. C3 is the most flexible form of zoning in our code. At the moment, people are pounding fists demanding a parking ramp and want to deny residential development. You hear the chorus.

First, we should ask, what do we want the downtown to be? It seems many people want it to remain the same, just with more parking. But is there a parking problem? Storefront and residential occupancy is trending near 100%; as a measure of tenant demand, it is at maximum capacity - the market is out of balance, we need to allow more residential and commercial development, or better, mixed-use. If 'let's keep it the same' is the mantra, then the city doesn't need to do anything. If we offer more parking, there is no way to increase the number of stores and residential units. It will only drive up prices of both assets.

On the other hand, if we want to maximize the value of the district as a measure of property value (again, the ultimate measure of desirability - if property values are increasing, we are doing something right!!!), then the city's planning and zoning policies need to meet demand for the desired development product. At present, there is only a single C3 property in the district. We need more C3, we need more mixed-use development.

RiverPlace2.GIFAny new business locating to the few vacant storefronts knows the bargain - you need to have a sufficiently desirable product to attract customers. A resident must know that downtown parking isn't going to be convenient, but access to great amenities are always at your doorstep. New developers are smarter than we acknowledge. If parking is a necessity, they will build it. Likewise, if they want parking around their commercial areas, they will accommodate it on property or will evaluate the street parking. This is the market. In recent residential developments, parking has been accommodated on-site (usually below the development). Many will ask, what about visitor parking? I would bet 9 times out of 10, visitors are also patronizing local establishments and not hanging out in micro-apartments.

We need better parking management strategies. The end-goal of the business district is customer turnover. Certain businesses will want 15 minute parking, others will want 2-hour. 2-4 hour parking should be mid-term. Beyond 4, should be long term and accommodated on satellite lots (i.e. long-term storage lots, Gateway or Broom Factory). It should also be noted, any amenity that is free, will inevitably be over-used. If we wanted to make parking truly congruent with demand, we should charge a market rate. With fee-based parking, parking demand will go down... people will seek alternatives like Uber, they will carpool, they will walk or bike. If free, it will be overused by employees, residents and customers. 

My quick assessment... Downtown rents are increasing, storefront vacancy is historically low. This is good, this implies customer access is not an issue. Now the nature of the business and customer might be changing (car-worshipers might be returning to the mall (I doubt it though)), but the business district is vibrant. If the new downtown arcade (which I love by the way!) thought parking was imperative for their business, they would have located in the mall, not on the tightest parking block in all of Cedar Falls. Well, I hope I conveyed my feelings. I don't want to sacrifice district vitality and taxable value (new, bold buildings), for asphalt and concrete.

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  • have the city buy back the broom factory location and make that into a city parking lot. That has been filled to the brim and will get busier as more housing is added to down town.