We’ve been spectators to several discussions about parking in our social media comment sections, and it seems people in Champaign-Urbana are really passionate about this particular topic. Conversations about Plaza Park, Farren’s move, Lincoln Square Mall, the potential hockey arena, Destihl’s departure (they cited the need for more parking as a factor for their move), and Aloft Hotel heading to Downtown Champaign have all involved commentary about parking. This includes business owners and community members alike, on both sides of the “more vs. less parking” conversation.

While C-U is not entirely unique by comparison to other communities our size, it certainly does have a unique component to it: the division of city centers across Downtown Champaign, Campustown at the University of Illinois, and Downtown Urbana. Three urban centers, one community. It creates a unique challenge.

HOW DID WE GET HERE?

Champaign-Urbana’s “micro-urban” community campaign launched in the early 2010s; a vision between Downtown Champaign, Campustown, and Downtown Urbana (and Krannert Center’s Mike Ross) to find a thread of unity amongst the group. Certainly, the term stands up to describe what it means to live here in C-U: Vibrant food and drink scene, extraordinary academic and research community, accessibility to arts, live music, and culture, and other components of great livability make it that way. Although our micro-urban city wants to have the best of both worlds — convenience and attractions — we can’t always have it that way.

In comparison to similarly-populated communities, most have one centralized “downtown”, and we have three. Just look at Iowa City or Madison. As time has passed, perhaps these denser city centers within the community aren’t seen as urban centers due to the fragmentation of a dual-city community. But they are, in fact, urban centers, and the reasons why people are hung up on parking close to their respective destination in urban centers is worth discussing.

PARKING IN URBAN CENTERS + INFILL DEVELOPMENT

Parking as a concept is denser and more studied than you might realize. Engineers and urban planners can be experts on the topic, and entire conferences are devoted to parking and mobility conferences. Given the changing trends in how land is used, and how it is changing over time, perhaps we should start with infill development, and how that plays into this conversation.

The development of these three areas of C-U over the course of the last 15+ years raises a perception issue. Infill development has been fairly successful in these three areas, filling vacant space with viable, successful business ventures as a spark plug for activity. We now have plenty of restaurants and businesses to visit in all three of these city centers (it wasn’t always this way!), yet there is the same amount of parking space for having more places worth visiting. 

Infill development demands the following, according to University of Delaware’s Complete Communities Toolbox:

  • Efficient utilization of land resources
  • More compact patterns of land use and development
  • Reinvestment in areas that are targeted for growth and have existing infrastructure
  • More efficient delivery of quality public services

Even more than what it is listed here, the EPA showcases also argues the value of infill development in the following ways:

  • Save money by promoting development in areas that already have infrastructure connected to public services
  • Raise property values in the surrounding areas
  • Bring residencies and destinations closer together
  • Make it easier for people to walk, use transit, and drive shorter distances to reduce pollution from vehicles
  • Help stabilize community by attracting greater diversity of household income levels, bringing new resources to a neighborhood and reducing concentrated poverty

You can read more about the benefits of infill development here.

You'll notice parking is not part of the infill discussion. When we focus on infill development, sure, curbside parking might go by the wayside at times, but such such developments usually lead to economic benefit through increased sales tax, providing more income for the city.

If you fill that space with vacant parking spaces for automobiles, that’s a lost opportunity to fill it with a space for a business that creates potential for people to spend money and encourage economic growth. The removal of parking spaces for the new Plaza Park is an example of how infill development can potentially create an attraction to benefit the city economically. While it might not feel like a business, a park is an abstract version of one, and a magnet for activity — a common attribute to city centers all over the world.

Infill space causing removal or reduction of parking is typically justified by this increased economic viability for the community on the whole. We might face additional issues with getting to where we need to go, but these decisions are vital to the growth and sustainability of urban centers.

THINGS ARE STILL PRETTY GOOD

Thankfully, in our micro-urban community, getting around isn’t challenging. We have access to plenty of parking. Anytime you drive somewhere and must to pay to park, there’s a sliding cost scale of time vs. money, and it still results in something affordable and accessible to most. Parking is plentiful even in the busiest sections of the community, such as Downtown Champaign and Downtown Urbana. Campustown can be a bit of a beast at times, but there's a plethora of parking available at reasonable prices. In the future, we won't need parking the same way we do now because of the changing landscape of transportation to ride sharing (including bikes and scooters). There's always a discussion to be had about availability of accessible parking — right now there probably aren’t enough spaces — but for those for whom mobility isn't a consideration, opportunities abound. 

It's also important to note that the City of Champaign has a well-established, self-sufficient parking operation that’s funded almost entirely by tickets, meter fees, parking passes, and other miscellaneous items, not taxpayer dollars. With that, these operations can adjust and reconfigure to meet the needs of an ever-changing city center. 

In the end, when we talk about the changing landscape of our urban centers and how transportation fits into that, it is easy to point at parking as the problem. Parking and accessibility are crucial components to growing and changing city centers. While we face unique issues with three city centers, we should see it as an opportunity to lead as a community with many centers functioning as one. Recognizing the uniqueness of our community is key in moving forward towards real solutions.

Top photo from Google Maps

Smile Politely's Editorial Board consists of  Nicole Anderson-Cobb, Jessica Hammie, Julie McClure, and Patrick Singer.