“Anywhere but downtown,” I emailed to a source about meeting in Denver for lunch. “The parking is ridiculous.”
The gears of growth in our state’s largest city are grinding on the nerves of those who try to go there to do business daily. I live in Jefferson County, where the taxes are lower, the parking lots are plentiful and freedom rings. If people can’t get to where they need to be in a suit and tie or a skirt and heels when time is money, it becomes increasingly harder for Denver to call itself the business hub of the West.
Traffic is choking the city, and despite decades of working on it, transit is still a time-consuming maze of buses, light rail, shuttles and trails. If you have a meeting, leave early. We can only hope moving people efficiently catches up faster than parking spots disappear. There’s a lot riding on it.
In a pique over another lunch in Lakewood instead of downtown, I did what Americans do: I threw it on Facebook for validation and comfort. Within a few hours, after 55 likes and 73 comments, it was clear that navigating downtown Denver strikes a nerve.
It is a many-sided political issue too hot for most incumbents to touch, especially Mayor Michael Hancock. Who can blame him? The solutions are complicated and costly and perhaps too far in the rearview mirror to make a difference.
Gov. John Hickenlooper leveraged parking frustrations into a political career. When he first ran for mayor of Denver in 2003, one of his best-known commercials showed him dropping change in parking meters that were about to expire.
A pub owner in Lower Downtown at the time, Hick understood the vital relationship between parking and foot traffic. A downtown Denver merchant is fighting a lost cause to expect that anytime soon Coloradans will embrace toting their weekly groceries or dry cleaning on a bicycle or light rail.
“The city raised our parking rates,” Hickenlooper said in the campaign ad. “And now shoppers are going elsewhere, business is suffering and tax revenues are down.”
Near the end of his second term in 2010, as Hickenlooper ran for governor, the city published its strategic parking plan.
Hancock has a plan for everything, it seems, except parking as he positions himself to seek a third term. He’s been rolling out his big ideas following an aspirational State of the City address last month.
His office also is touting “Denveright,” its plan to handle growth to 2040.
The plan speaks of transit. It speaks of trails. It speaks of bike lanes. It says nothing about additional parking.
I asked if I could talk to the mayor about parking, or at least get a statement.
“Feels like you should be discussing our parking efforts with our parking staff,” replied Hancock’s spokeswoman, Amber Miller.
The city relies on the parking plan written in 2010, which “continues to reflect our city’s vision for and approach to on-street parking and serves to guide every day decision making,” answered Nancy Kuhn, the spokeswoman for the public works department.
Plenty of others on my Facebook stream had their own tale of the times.
“I can’t even get parking for my employees like long-term monthly parking,” said political PR pro Michelle Balch Lyng of Novitas Communications.
Greg Fulton, the president of the Colorado Motor Carriers Association, offered that it’s “even more challenging for people trying to deliver goods into the downtown area as we have more people and business downtown yet fewer freight loading/unloading zones than in past.”
This is a looming crisis for truckers and transporters, as well as those who depend on them. The state truckers association met with city planners about it recently. As more people abandon cars for downtown living, they’ll rely more on delivery services for big-ticket items. Unfortunately, those delivery trucks are having an even harder time than the rest of us in finding a place to stop and unload reasonably near the destination.
As the price of real estate soars, parking is the first corner that businesses cut. Storage is the second, Fulton said. That means more deliveries and delivery costs, which businesses and customers will be forced to absorb.
Former Denver Post reporter-turned author Mark Obmascik suggested I embrace the facts of life in the city.
“Can you name a great city anywhere in the world where you can drive and park cheaply and easily downtown?” he wrote me.
“No. A few years ago people bitched about all the vacant parking lots in downtown Denver. You either want to be a city or you don’t.”
Yes, parking problems are a reality for a growing city, but they don’t have to be an inevitability. Problems are defined as the things you don’t plan for. Parking is Denver’s problem. The city did some planning in 2010, or they at least wrote a plan.
“The absence of parking management can result in negative outcomes,” the Hickenlooper plan warned eight years ago.
“If demand consistently exceeds supply in high-demand, mixed-use areas; the result may compromise quality of life from both the resident and business/retail perspectives.”