Developmental efforts continue to be fixed on the region’s downtown districts, and as each neighborhood sees increased density, the cities face challenges associated with marrying 21st century lifestyle with structures that were built decades before.
One facet of city life that often goes unnoticed until it becomes a problem is parking.
The number of vehicles per capita has increased steadily in the U.S. since the mid-20th century. In fact, research from the Federal Highway Administration shows the number of automobiles on the road rose by an average of about 4 million each year from 1960 to 2006.
There are now about 260 million registered vehicles in the U.S., according to the latest data from the Department of Transportation (2014), and once activity reaches a certain point in historic downtown districts, cities must decide how to cope with an increased automobile presence.
One option is to take parking vertical. The city of Fayetteville, for example, recently built a 253-space multistory parking garage in conjunction with the expansion of the Walton Arts Center.
Parking decks are expensive, with the average cost at about $16,000 per space versus $4,000 per space for an asphalt parking lot, but University of Arkansas transit and parking director Gary Smith said sometimes a garage is the best option for space conservation in a compact area, where land is a prized asset.
“If you look at [UA] Lot 56 on Razorback and Martin Luther King Drive, that’s a 1,400-space lot, and it fills a city block and a half. The Garland Center garage is 1,500 spaces, and its footprint is about a half a block,” he said.
Another option is to implement paid parking — a leap which three of four major cities in Northwest Arkansas have not made.
The introduction of paid parking costs money and is usually a controversial issue among residents and merchants. However, some argue it becomes an inevitability for cities once they reach a certain size, when lack of parking turnover and availability become an issue.
The city of Fayetteville has had some form of paid parking for at least 13 years, although city official Peter Nierengarten said the exact start date is not apparent.
It started on and around the square, and in 2010 the city started charging for parking near Dickson Street in the entertainment district.
Besides the $1.5 million of revenue it brought in for the city in 2015, Nierengarten says paid parking offers benefits. He is director of sustainability and resilience for Fayetteville, but parking falls under his jurisdiction.
“Paid parking is a way of managing parking challenges in any dense downtown area. Space is at a premium, land is at a premium. Land has value, space has value, and parking is no different,” Nierengarten said.
International Parking Institute spokesman Gary Means agrees. Turnover is important for street parking downtown, he said.
“What typically is happening is people who own or work at the shops are clogging up the spaces all day long, or there could be an attorney or some other office nearby where people need all-day parking,” he said.
But with a financial incentive involved, individuals who need long-term parking are more likely to park in lots a block or so away, leaving the closer spots for shoppers and restaurant-goers.
Means is based out of Lexington, Kentucky, a community that bears some resemblance to Northwest Arkansas in terms of size and demographics.
Of pushback from retailers, Means said, “Some people think it’s going to be more of problem than it is. A lot of the merchants may say, ‘You’re going to put us out of business,’ but they’ll find that if there’s a problem, it will help clear up the problem.
“If nobody can get to your business because the parking is all clogged up all day, you’re not getting customers because they can’t find a space,” he said.
At the same time, implementing a metered system when parking is abundant doesn’t make sense.
“You don’t just up and start charging if there’s plenty of spaces and no problem at all. Usually, when cities start looking at paid parking it’s because great things are getting ready to happen downtown or are already happening, or people are complaining,” Means said.
Parking challenges are a side effect of a thriving downtown.
“It depends on what a city wants to do. If they want to encourage more people to come downtown, they may have free parking,” Smith said.
Fayetteville (population 81,000, according to 2014 U.S. Census data) is the largest of the four cities. Springdale is the second-largest city (population 77,000). However, it has not seen a downtown development boom like Rogers (population 61,000) and especially Bentonville (population 42,000).
As downtown Bentonville has exploded, the city and other organizations have invested in parking, with additional lots and two new garages.
“If you’re looking to park right on the square, that’s probably going to be hard to do most days, but if you’re willing to park a block away, most days you can accomplish that pretty easily,” said Troy Galloway, director of community development for the city.
Although the two parking decks were created within the last few years for the patrons of their adjoining establishments, a portion of the parking deck built by the Walton family in conjunction with the Midtown development is available for public parking during various days and times, and the top level of the parking garage at 21c Museum Hotel is always open to the public, Galloway said. However, those spaces have been underutilized.
“We believe that there’s still adequate downtown parking. What we’ve got to do a better job of is making it obvious to the people that are looking for it and getting them to it,” he said. “If you’re a local person, you kind of get it figured out, but if you’re coming from out of town, like a lot more of our visitors are, they don’t necessarily know exactly where that parking is.”
For now, paid parking is not on Bentonville’s radar, Galloway said, and Mayor Bob McCaslin echoed the sentiment in an email.
“We do not have plans to institute paid parking in downtown Bentonville,” he wrote.
Meanwhile, the rise of Uber and also a local push for bicycling and walking tied to the region-wide trail system raise the question of whether Northwest Arkansas will soon need less parking, but the impact seems to be minimal so far.
These factors might have a greater effect in large cities, Means said. “But in Arkansas, in Kentucky, and a lot of Midwest and smaller communities, people, by and large, want to drive their car and have that freedom, and they like to park close to where they’re going. That’s not really changing very fast.”