Easton, PA is one of my favorite small cities in eastern PA, and some of the compact older cities and boroughs around the state should be looking to them for inspiration on economic revitalization.
The historic downtown is beautiful, with a traffic circle in the center of the downtown, dividing the downtown into four quadrants of mostly 3-5 story mixed-use buildings with shops on the ground floor and apartments above. Rather than fighting their historic street plan because it’s not conducive to car use and parking, like many older cities and boroughs have been doing, they’ve been running with it.
Back in the mid-2000’s Mayor Sal Panto and City Council threw out the old zoning code and wrote a new one that promotes infill construction and mixed-use housing and neighborhood retail, realizing that that kind of walkable city lifestyle is what had been attracting some artists and entrepreneurs from NYC and Philly to settle there. They got rid of their parking minimums in the core downtown area. They narrowed Larry Holmes drive, which runs along the riverfront just east of downtown and upgraded the riverfront park with some playground equipment, a bandshell, and pedestrian infrastructure. And they installed electronic parking meters and raised the rates. It costs $100 a year to buy a parking permit in Easton, versus $35 in Philadelphia.
Rather than hurting business or residential growth, the pro-walkability policy changes have been a strong wind at the back of a growing retail economy and residential construction. Several big apartment conversion projects are in the pipeline, and the city saw 22 new businesses open in just the first 5 months of 2013.
Predictably, the influx of downtown residents and businesses has created a more congested curb parking situation. But while many older cities see parking congestion as a reason not to pursue pro-growth policies like Easton’s in the first place, and might be inclined to respond to the increase in parking congestion by putting the brakes on population growth or business activity in their downtown, Mayor Panto is taking the next logical step for a place that was never meant to accommodate that much parking – he’s expanding transit service:
Mayor Sal Panto Jr. said today that the city plans to buy a used trolley sometime this month and have it up and running through the Downtown area this summer. With the city’s new parking garage not due for completion until autumn, the city will rely on the trolley to connect distant parking lots to popular tourist spots, Panto said.
“We can’t invent parking, so I think it’s the next best idea,” Panto said.
In the 60’s through the 90’s, city governments would try to “invent parking” by tearing down buildings to create surface lots, or building unaffordable parking garages with subsidized spaces. Easton is building a new parking garage on the back of a new multi-modal bus terminal, but they’re mostly trying to deal with the parking issue on the demand side – controlling the demand for parking by raising the curb prices higher than the garage rates, and adding a transit service that allows people to park further from downtown, and take a less space-intensive trolley in.
Think of how much less space it takes carting 30 people around in a single trolley, versus the amount of space that 30 cars take up. A trolley can fit in two parking spaces, whereas 30 cars need enough land for 30 spaces.
The Mayor’s decision to expand transit in the face of the parking crunch, rather than putting the brakes on growth or reimposing on-site parking minimums, is an important lesson for all our older cities to learn. Focus on getting more people and fun things to do in your central downtown area and when the parking situation eventually gets tight, start trying to shift the mode share toward transit.