Let’s agree on the problem before turning part of downtown Bangor into a parking lot

Amy and Lance Blackstone, Originally posted in Bangor Daily News on Jan 3, 2017

At its December meeting, the Bangor City Council’s business and economic development committee heard citizen comments about a proposed revitalization of Pickering Square.

Goals of the project include improving experience for bus users, improving experience for parking garage users, establishing a pedestrian connection between downtown and the waterfront, and incorporating a public space for events and recreation.

Two proposed options appear to be under serious consideration. The first would separate and improve bus and public restroom facilities, moving the public square portion of Pickering Square adjacent to the parking garage. The other would place a paved parking lot in the current Pickering Square space and move the bus station to an as yet undetermined location at an as yet undetermined cost.

Nowhere in the proposal provided to the public was there a statement about the specific problem that the committee is attempting to address, and neither of the options being considered was explicitly linked back to the stated goals of the project. Setting aside the criticisms that it is difficult to solve a problem before we’ve defined what that problem is and that solutions should be clearly linked to goals, there are several problems with the parking lot solution.

Most obviously, proposing to move the bus hub without having any idea about where, when or how to move it, how much moving it will cost or how moving it could affect the thousands of people who use the bus is shortsighted. Ignoring the problem of what to do with the bus hub also sends a message to those of us who rely on the bus for access to home, work, health services and area businesses that we do not matter.

Replacing Pickering Square with a parking lot also “solves” a problem it isn’t clear exists. As residents of downtown Bangor and pass holders at the parking garage, we have never once seen the garage full. Of course, our experience alone should not be taken as representative but neither should the claims of the mere 14 residents, who could speak in the time provided at the committee’s December meeting.

Believing we have a parking problem is not the same as knowing that we do. The parking lot proposal provided to citizens did not include references to data that support its case. While the tools for knowing whether we need more parking in the vicinity of the existing garage are certainly available — including surveys of or interviews with stakeholders or observations of parking patterns — it isn’t clear whether they have been used. If we do have data that support the need for more parking in front of the garage, those data — and the methods used to collect them — should be made available to the public.

One area where we do have data is in research showing that public spaces, not parking lots, hold great value for communities. One study found that having high-quality, public open spaces enhances residents’ sense of community. Another found that urban green spaces in particular promote positive feelings and well-being among visitors. The Project for Public Spaces notes that good public spaces come with a range of benefits, including reducing crime, enhancing pedestrian safety, attracting business and tourism and improving the environment.

At the December meeting, some business owners testified that their livelihoods are being hurt by what they perceive to be a lack of available parking in downtown. As downtown property owners who live in, shop at, eat in and visit downtown venues regularly, we are empathetic to this concern. We want nothing more than to see downtown thrive. But if customers already refuse to park in the garage because of its perceived distance from businesses, adding parking of equal distance from businesses is not likely to be an effective solution.

One thing the December meeting made clear is that all stakeholders want a vibrant and safe downtown. To enhance Bangor’s safety and vibrancy, let’s first agree on the problem we’re trying to solve and connect our proposed solutions to our goals. Only then can we identify the solution that best makes our wonderful downtown Bangor even better and more welcoming than it already is.

Amy and Lance Blackstone are enthusiastic downtown residents. Amy is professor of the sociology at the University of Maine in Orono. She is a member of the Maine chapter of the Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications. Members’ columns appear in the BDN every other week.

Research Shows

About Research Shows

Education. Jobs. Health. Poverty. Crime. Immigration. Environment. Campaigns. Rights. What does research show? Avoiding jargon, Maine’s Scholars Strategy Network explores pressing issues and democratic life.