The ebb and flow of public space vs building in downtown areas creates an enjoyable walking experience called “walk appeal.” The basic concept is how far we’ll walk is much about what we encounter along the way. If we want to encourage vibrant, people-centric downtown experiences, then large open parking areas aren’t the way to do it. While parking is necessary, it is often driven by mandatory minimums, not by actual demand and increasing in parking contributes to the “oversupply of underpriced” spaces. More importantly, we’ve given parking a prominent position in our cities with disastrous effects to the overall livability. If real estate is all about location, why give something with limited productivity such prized locations?
It all begins with what lens you look through when designing the downtown experience. Rather than starting with a bunch of constraints, start by asking “what does a good pedestrian experience of this space look like” and build from there. In specifically looking at South Bend’s downtown, where development has dramatically increased in recent years, we still face uphill changes brought about by parking centric lenses.
Recent iterations of the new St. Joseph County Public Library show a suburban campus, counter to the urban environment it inhabits. 10 years ago, we lost another historic building downtown in the Avon Theater with the promise that the new library campus would reinforce the Michigan streetscape. If that doesn’t come to fruition, one concept worth exploring is a thin building development situated between the Music Village Building and the Friend of the Library Building. This would help activate the street with only a row or two of parking lost with the most recent campus iteration. As this plan moves forward, the walk appeal of the downtown should be a focus. Otherwise, the investment made in this keystone property will have lost the opportunity to reinforce the gains in pedestrian infrastructure in downtown South Bend that is driving so much of the current development.