A Better Park Lane.
Plans for rebuilding Park Lane are moving forward. On Tuesday night, the Council will authorize bids for construction that will begin in January. The Council will also finalize some of the design decisions.
There's a lot to like about the plans; improved underground infrastructure, the replacement of the failing pavement surface and sidewalks, better lighting and healthier trees. Most importantly, it will be a safer and more comfortable street that accommodates a range of uses.
But it could be better. There are at least two decisions to be made Tuesday night that are worth watching.
Despite popular support, the City is not considering a fully pedestrianized street. Park Lane is hardly a critical arterial, and most of the car traffic on the street today is there only to access parking. Except for the handful of parking spots on the street, nobody needs to drive there at all. So we'd hardly miss the car access, and we'd enjoy the pedestrian access a great deal more.
But if there's not an appetite for a fully car-free street, there are still steps that will make it better.
Today, the parking lot on Lake St has access to and from both Central Way and Park Lane. The current access to/from Central will not change. But staff are also recommending keeping the 2nd entrance on Park Lane, and asking Council to decide whether the lot needs a 2nd exit onto Park. The Park Lane access is unnecessary. Our most pedestrian-friendly street does not need the dangers of either an entrance or exit to Park Lane. Having half of the cars from the Lake St lot exit down Park Lane adds traffic and dangers to the street.
At a minimum, Council should reject an exit onto Park Lane, but also consider why this small parking lot needs two entrances.
Many cities have had success with converting some of their streets to car-free use on summer evenings or weekends (San Francisco, Santa Monica, Brooklyn NY, even Houston and many smaller cities). It's an experiment worth trying in Kirkland. If it doesn't work out, no harm done. Nothing in today's plans prevent us from reverting to the current mix of car and pedestrian uses. But having parking lot access on Park Lane makes it all much harder because we'd need to reconfigure those driveways every single time.
Some on staff have been convinced that free parking in the Park Lane lots will be good for local business during the construction period. So they are proposing to spend $50,000 in city funds waiving fees in those lots, despite an absence of any analysis or data to support the supposed business benefits.
It's more likely an expensive failure which will actively harm businesses. Free parking might seem a great deal in a fantasy world where you find a spot just steps from your destination. The reality is a few drivers will linger for many hours, reducing access to the best parking spots in downtown. The lots will be full anyway, but fewer drivers will be able to use them. Businesses do better when parking spots turn over quickly in the most central locations. Fees for parking are how we make that happen. If free parking belongs anywhere, it belongs in the less desirable, more distant parking locations. With a temporary loss of parking availability on Park Lane, downtown parking management is more important than ever.
The city of Salem OR recently convinced itself that free, and unlimited, parking would be good for their downtown. Less than a year later, business owners are asking the city to reverse their error. Parking has become impossible on core streets as the average parked car sits for 22% longer. 9% of drivers have given up going downtown at all. This is not a result we should try to replicate.