Richmond Matters

Commentary and conversations about life in Richmond, Indiana

Government and Politics

Getting stuck on parking

The recent community conversation about bike paths in the Depot District is quickly turning into a case study in how a city can get stuck in the past. We’re at a crossroads, and we need to take a step back to avoid going the wrong way.

In case you’ve been out of The Loop (ha ha?), for decades now the City of Richmond has been working on improving transportation options here. When we ask strategic planners and economic development experts to tell us what kinds of things we could do to make Richmond more appealing to employers, investors and residents, transportation infrastructure updates that make Richmond a more walkable, bike-able city are always high on the list.

Our 2006 Comprehensive Plan had an entire section on Transportation that includes recommendations like, “create an interconnected street system that facilitates safe travel throughout the city for pedestrians, bicyclists, and automobiles” along with “the greater use of alternatives to single-occupancy automobile travel.” There weren’t “nice to have” items; they were identified as important to Richmond’s long-term success. In 2013 we built on that plan in our project proposals to leverage Stellar Communities dollars, proposing things like pedestrian/bicycle paths on 7th and 10th street that would “create a safe walkable/bike-able community to encourage wellness, fitness and as another unique asset that the downtown living offers.

In the last few months a small group of people have expressed concern about the progress that’s been made on these longstanding goals. There seem to be two main claims in their opposition: 1) that they weren’t given a chance to offer input on the plan, and 2) that the plan won’t work if it doesn’t preserve all existing parking.

Let’s take a look at those one at a time.

 “We weren’t consulted”

If you’ve ever tried to update a commercial building, make a change to a public thoroughfare like a sidewalk, or get something relatively simple done like have bike parking racks installed, you know that these things can’t happen overnight. They require extensive filings with various local and state agencies, approval from various departments and inspectors, and often just lots of waiting. (I suppose it is good that change is slow when it comes to maintaining safety and the public interest in building codes, accessibility and more, but it does make some kinds of community improvement hard.)

When a government entity like the City of Richmond decides to make changes to the landscape of our community, even if they didn’t say a peep about it in public they would still be subject to all of these very public processes of approval and comment. In the case of the 2006 Comprehensive Plan and the subsequent Stellar Communities planning, the City went far above and beyond the minimum requirements.

They had meetings upon meetings to make sure that anyone who might want to be a part of that process would have an opportunity. The meetings were held at the lunch hour, in the evenings and on the weekends. They were held in Richmond and in surrounding locations. They had open houses where people could just come in and browse the plans and ask questions, without the pressure of speaking at a public meeting. The meetings were advertised in the newspaper, on local TV and radio stations, in flyers and emails, on social media and more. The Palladium-Item ran several in-depth articles about the plans and the impact they would have on the community. Hundreds and hundreds of people turned out for the conversations to give their input.

Here are some of the dates of the Stellar Streets project planning meetings: March 12, 2012, January 6, 2013, July 2, 2013, August 19, 2013, December 2, 2013 (Common Council meeting), December 11, 2013, December 18, 2013, April 9, 2014 (at 10:30 AM, 1:30 PM, 3:30 PM and 6:30 PM), February 11 (at 3 PM, 6 PM), April 23, 2015, April 30, 2015. Over the years there were 26 presentations given to local community groups including the Downtown Business Group, the Depot District group, the Chamber of Commerce, Kiwanis and others. Every project proposal had a public comment period, and in some cases that period was extended to allow more time.

A lot of this planning happened prior to Dave Snow’s tenure as Mayor, but he may have drawn as much attention to it as anyone. Over his 18 month campaign, Snow held infrastructure improvements as a centerpiece to his plans for revitalizing and improving Richmond’s economy. I didn’t see a debate, presentation or Q&A session where he didn’t discuss his ideas and plans for making Richmond a more accessible, bike-able and walkable city. No, he wasn’t necessarily holding up construction drawings, but his command of the details increased throughout the campaign and as he took office, and I know he was excited to share those with anyone who expressed interest. He’s since discussed them in his State of the City addresses each year, done interviews with local radio and TV stations, and made multiple additional presentations to community groups.

Update on September 7th: The Palladium-Item has published a detailed history of this process.

So how is it that a group of folks including some business owners in the Depot District could have missed out on all of that? We can give them the benefit of the doubt and say they’re just really busy people who did’t have or make time to show up at these community planning meetings. Or maybe they did early on and the plans weren’t far enough along for them to raise specific concerns.

If that’s what happened, it’s an important lesson learned: civic engagement is important well beyond voting at election time. Decisions that affect us all are made by others on a regular basis, and if we want a say in the outcome, we need to show up. We especially need to show up when we’re invited by elected leaders, lest they come to think that their constituents just don’t care.

The Mayor has talked recently about missed opportunities for better communication between his administration and the people who live here. Yes, there have been challenges that need to be addressed. But we also live in a world where some people feel free to spread rumors and misinformation on social media all day long. In order to get just one factual, useful piece of information to “stick” out in the world, the Mayor’s staff probably has to communicate it 50 times more often and more emphatically than the Facebook user who can just click “share” on one misleading comment.

I worry that there’s also a creeping sense of entitlement among people objecting to bike path plans that’s leading to expectations of preferential treatment. Should we celebrate the private investments that have been made in the Depot District? Absolutely! There are a lot of wonderful success stories there. The Depot folks know that they’ve made it into one of Richmond’s most thriving retail areas, believing in those streets and buildings when no one else would. It’s easy to see how they might come to see themselves as deserving of some special accommodations.

But for better or worse, that’s not how it works. The bureaucracy of city government does not permit proactively giving individual residents and business owners a call or a visit every time there’s a change that affects their block. And late objections don’t mean that we throw away the input given by hundreds and hundreds of other people who have said, “we want this.” I think we all want a process that is inclusive, broadly consultative and fair, and that puts business owners and individual residents on an even playing field.

We also have our representatives on Richmond’s Common Council, who apart from the employees who work in the City, probably have the most insight and access to the inner workings of local government activities. Unfortunately Council seems to be in some disarray around this conversation, approaching their own awkward “I voted for it before I voted against it” moment as at least one member wants to end Council support for Stellar-funded projects altogether.

In doing so, they’re toying with introducing a ridiculous standard for a project that has always been transparently designed to make our city more bike-able and walkable: “no parking lost.”

“No parking lost”

For decades, Richmond has been a city designed to accommodate one person in a vehicle driving around town, and any other form of transportation is considered second class.

Despite right-of-way laws and human decency that would suggest otherwise, all over town pedestrians and cyclists anxiously scamper out of the way of cars and trucks zipping along our roads. Many of our neighborhoods and main thoroughfares don’t have sidewalks at all; this is a failure of municipal codes and city planning, and every day it fails anyone who might have to walk to work along US-40 or who wants to explore what Richmond has to offer by foot.

Maybe in an ideal world we might not even have to think about having pedestrian bike paths or special bike lanes. But it would require being surround by motorists who were cautious of and respectful to walkers and cyclists instead of yielding just enough distance not to kill them outright, while sometimes yelling or honking at them too. As a whole, Richmond is not a city that is attractive to bike or walk through.

And yet young people who are deciding whether to stay in or move to a particular city are thinking about bike-ability and walkability. They want a quality of life that includes diverse transportation options and ease of navigation. They ask, “can I easily step outside my door and meet up with friends, grab a bite to eat, or do some shopping?”

Yes, there are people who want to be able to park right in front of to the store they’re going to shop at or the restaurant they’re going to eat at. At some level we’re all lazy creatures and we like convenience.

But if we optimize for convenience over all else in community planning, we miss the point. Followed to its natural conclusion, accommodating our laziest instincts gets us a world where sandwiches, furniture and everything else shows up to our doors in an Amazon box as we never leave the house or apartment again. It means the end of public squares and casual conversation from encountering each other on the street, or having landscapes that are beautiful and green just for the sake of beauty and greenness. It means the end of experiencing our world as citizens and neighbors, and a focus on experiencing it as consumers.

I don’t think Richmond does well in that world. It doesn’t matter how great the Depot District is doing today, there is no one thriving retail neighborhood that can prop up a city experiencing serious decline in population, disposable income, education levels or workforce readiness. In the past it was the Promenade or the new shopping center or the mall or the highway tourist traffic that was going to save us. But we know the truth: no one part of town, no one business ever can.

The future Richmond that thrives as a whole is the one that plans for the long term. It’s one that builds neighborhoods, infrastructure and culture that are inviting to new people and new ways of thinking. It’s one that creates diverse uses of space block-by-block so that if one particular store goes out of business, a whole area doesn’t suffer. It’s one that accepts an automobile dominated, fossil-fuel powered world as a thing of the past, and makes changes accordingly.

The great news is that when we do this, everyone benefits! Even people who will only ever drive a car.

It’s painful to see people who have often otherwise been progressive, forward-thinking contributors to revitalizing the landscapes of Richmond be so stuck on parking. They are drawing hard lines in the sand to say that anything short of saving all the parking spaces we have today is unacceptable. In doing so, it feels like they are effectively saying that they will not be a part of a future version of Richmond that is more bike-able and walkable. It feels like they’re saying they want to put what works for their businesses over what works for the whole community in the long run.

I don’t think this adversarial, zero-sum approach is necessary. Where there are frustrations about the current plan or designs, we can come together to figure out solutions. Where there are short term growing pains, we can encounter those together in the spirit of collaboration and patience. And where confidence in leadership or communication has been shaken, we can find our way to steady ground.

Haven’t we been stuck on the car-centric version of Richmond long enough? If the answer to all of our woes was, “more roads and more on-street parking,” don’t you think we would have gotten there by now?

Isn’t it time to try something new?

9 Comments

  1. Matthew Stegall

    I have been following the proposed “Bike Loop” proposal for central Richmond, Indiana. In my experience with community revitalization initiatives, I have supported the incorporation of such systems in cities and towns. Bicycle systems enhance the physical and social quality of live through alternative transportation, conventional recreation, and social interaction. However, I am concerned about how infrastructure investment in bike lanes often used to enhance the quality of life for privileged individuals who already possess an enhanced quality of life while others are subjected to neglect and abandonment. The following is a statement from our recent Quality of Life Assessment prepared on behalf of the Starr District in Richmond. This statement is accompanied by a myriad of images from throughout the district:

    The majority of the sidewalks and curbs in the Starr Historic District are in deplorable condition. Crumbling concrete, gravel in-fill, and partial or incomplete repairs make it difficult to safely walk through the district, especially for those who use walking aids or are in a wheelchair. These conditions are contrary to the objective and mission of the Americans With Disabilities Act. This level of neglect also magnifies the degree off physical disparity between areas based on social and economic status that is common in many American cities.

    It is my opinion that these basic infrastructure needs in the Starr District as well as other neighborhoods in the core of Richmond should be prioritized over bike lanes, bike loops, and comparable enhancements.

    Sincerely,

    Olon F. Dotson, Associate Professor
    Department of Architecture
    College of Architecture and Planning
    Ball State University
    Muncie, Indiana 47306

    There are more important issues facing our community than the construction of a 5 Million Dollar infrastructure. In your defense of the Mayor you fail to recognize the importance of common people. Public meetings are held most of the time to justify a decision that has already been made.

    In just the Starr District there is an absentee ownership of over 52%, and a vacancy rate of 17%. Speaking as a true commuter biker the desire for an expensive loop overshadows the need for comprehensive program of healthy living. That is where the discussion gets muddled. Perhaps you should research quality of place more.

    • Thanks for your comments, Matt. I know you feel passionately about this issue and are invested in the outcome.

      I’m not sure why we can’t see bike/pedestrian infrastructure improvements as something that can happen in parallel to other kinds of improvements, especially when there are special grant funding circumstances involved for a particular project.

      I think continuing to frame this as “they Mayor versus the common people” is an unhelpful and unproductive approach. As my post notes, there was a lot of input received from many hundreds of people of all backgrounds and neighborhoods that led to the current plan, and despite the late nature of these new concerns, the Mayor continues to indicate his interest in further suggestions about practical solutions.

      You suggest that public meetings have no consequence, but current events where a Council member wants to rescind all Stellar funding approvals ostensibly because of a few people (yourself included) speaking at one recent meeting suggests otherwise. If the public is not heard at public meetings then obviously we have other problems, but so far I only hear a few voices calling for a total disregard of a years-long, comprehensive process that very much included lots of public input, and lots of expertise on quality of place.

  2. Brad

    I don’t see why the bike path needs to loop around Ft. Wayne Avenue. Won’t 7th street get the bikes to the depot district. Could there be some studies done to evaluate road and bike traffic after the initial bike path is put in place?

  3. Chris,

    I am all for the loop, the infrastructure with landscaping, and have been familiar with the design since Tony Foster introduced it. It takes time, a lot if youre not in the “loop”, and a concentrated effort to stay abreast of city plans, and meetings.

    I respectfully want to point out that it should also not be framed as “Depot businesses against progress “. That’s not how I have seen or heard it among that group of people, despite how “social media rumors” circulate.

    I believe that our local DJ and former Common Council member, greatly missed an opportunity to bring clarity and unity, between government and private ennterprise, by explaining some of the dynamics of the rolls of city, the council, and possible perception of the public, instead of pitting them all against each other.

    They say, where ever you see signs in a parking lot stating “For this business, or entity only”, there is already a shortage. Parking is one of THE WORST dilemmas facing residents of large cities, and is often only afordable to the elites.

    Clearly those who have invested their lives, and in the Depot district
    most have, both business and residents, need their concerns to be heard and taken seriously. We cannot dismiss present reality for a long lagging economic situation. Richmond has always lagged, about 10-20 years.

    Personally, living here on N. 11th Street I find it easy to walk and/or bike around the district, using Elm place to avoid most of the traffic and avoiding crossing over the bridge that is 27. I am also a business owner who answers to my clients very regularly regarding the very important question, “What about parking?”

    So what do we do now to prepare for the new current trend, coming to Richmond in about 15 years, which is living in a bus? Should we make a new plan for parking. 😉 #skoolies #skoolie

    • Thanks for your great points, Ardene. I appreciate you noting the danger of creating another unhelpful framing, “Depot business owners vs progress.” It wasn’t my intent to do so and I should emphasize that I have great respect for you and others there who have worked so hard, invested so much and also have differences of opinion on this matter.

      I sincerely hope that folks who haven’t felt heard so far can be heard soon, and that even beyond that, they are newly incorporated into a collaborative, careful process that brings this to a successful resolution.

  4. Nick Wilson

    I attended several of the meetings and as a person who was against the bike paths they refused to look at the stats or even listen to what I had to say. Like you said some places don’t even have sidewalks. That actually limits the safety of the elderly or disabled in the neighborhood who have to walk or use a mobility device to get around. We have more disabled residents that use wheelchairs than we do bike commuters.

  5. Alex Gibson

    I work for Meridian – literally in the heart of this. Sure, most of us who are complaining about parking being taken away are doing so because of laziness as you put it, but I have a large number of clients who have ambulatory concerns and/or use walkers, wheel chairs, braces, crutches, etc. They aren’t lazy, and they need someone to be vocal for them. They need someone to care about their safety as much as we care about the safety of the cyclists. I may even be so bold as to say we need to care more, because the cyclists have more options as abled people than many of my clients do.

    Clients come in and out of our office all day during business hours that are later than many of our surrounding businesses. Many then walk across the street to Phillips to get their meds and they are doing this all while being forced to park over a block away or more depending on what activities are going on in the plaza. Do you know how difficult that can be for someone with their struggles? Now add inclement weather like excessive heat or snows. They struggle, and they don’t complain, because they’re used to it. They shouldn’t have to be though.

    My rights may not be infringed upon by the bike path location, but taking away their parking does infringe on their rights. How can we claim we’re making Richmond more accessible when we are literally taking away access from the people who NEED it most? A bike path is not a need. In order to be compliant with federal law, however, we need disabled parking readily available.

    This path would’ve made more sense coming between the library and police station, where no parking would’ve been removed and very few changes would’ve been required since it already has a median that is used for nothing in it. No one is angry about the path existing itself. We are angry that we have to take detours while on a detour for the detour we took to avoid construction everywhere in town, and a pet project is making it worse. We’re upset because the wants and demands of a few seem to be taking precedence over the NEEDS of many. I’m personally upset because we just spent millions on the cardinal greenway not that long ago to give bikers a safe place to ride, and yet we still aren’t doing anything but the bare minimum requirements to give more accessibility to our disabled community members before catering to a special interest group a second time. I’m a liberal and I’m all for innovation and progress, but not at the expense of those among us who need protected the most. This is a clear case of where surroundings and environment matter, where it should’ve been taken into consideration how many disabled people this would affect between a mental health services facility and a pharmacy, and an alternate path, designed to be the least impactful to ALL, should’ve been implemented.

    But even more importantly than that? It doesn’t matter where we put the bike path, it doesn’t matter who parks where, if the town goes under with this heroin epidemic. I personally would’ve preferred to see this money being used to clean up the city in a much more impactful way like adding more treatment centers because waiting lists are astronomically long. It won’t matter how nice that path may look when finished – Richmond is very sick right now, and that’s the real reason people are leaving. It’s not over the fact there’s no where to ride a bike.

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