What Cleveland's Paid Parking Uproar Says About Cleveland

Yesterday I almost had a meltdown over parking. Yes, I am a big weirdo. But also, it was partially rational. (I swear, ok?)

So, the local Internet has been abuzz with the word that Cleveland is going to start charging for parking behind the West Side Market in the Ohio City neighborhood. This is really the first place outside of downtown that Cleveland is going to start charging for parking.

Of course, some people were aghast. “You want me to PAY to come spend my hard earned money in Cleveland?!?” To which those of us who consider ourselves more enlightened on the nuances of city planning were all like “surface parking sucks!!” or some slightly more intelligent and thoughtful version thereof.

This whole conversation took me through a range of emotions–a mental rollercoaster ride I find myself going through frequently when the subject of Cleveland and planning comes up.

At first I was mad. The plan only charges people if they’re not going to the West Side Market, or if they stay for more than an hour and a half. Also, even then, they are only planning to charge $2 an hour or $5 a night. Why would people even get worked up about $2? They probably won’t even have to pay it. Who stays at the West Side Market longer than an hour and a half? Nobody, is the answer.

Also, there’s a rapid transit stop directly across the street that NO ONE uses. I’ve ridden it down to the WSM on a Saturday and I didn’t see any shopping bags. PLUS they charge their largely lower-income patrons $2.25. Where’s the outrage about that?

Whew, stay with me. Then I started feeling depressed. How could we have gone so long without charging for parking in what is one of Cleveland’s hippest neighborhoods at one of the region’s biggest attractions? It says a lot about the value of real estate and the vibrancy of this city that we had not done so before.

The incredulous “You want me to PAY to PARK?” response from many members of the public is telling as well. The subtext is, “Cleveland is not a very nice place and you should be happy I bother driving my car there every once in a while. Not just happy, you should provide me with special enticements–free parking–or I won’t come at all.”

That is still the attitude a lot of people–even Clevelanders–have about the city. Because the city is scared to death to start charging for parking at the West Side Market: “What if the suburbanites stop coming?!” Even many Clevelanders are convinced that the city and its residents are subpar and easily replicated. If suburban people deign to visit us, winning their approval is our chance at redemption.

The same day I read that the city of San Francisco is lowering the minimum dwelling size to 150 square feet. What a contrast. Here on one hand you have a city that’s so vibrant, so desirable, people cram themselves into little places like that just for the thrill of being near where all the activity is. And here in Cleveland, in our hippest neighborhood, next to one of our biggest regional points of pride, we can’t even charge people $2 to park their car?

People like living in San Francisco because they don’t need a car. Because the city’s so beautifully scaled to the pedestrian, with such nice transit amenities, and the local economy is so vibrant. A 150 square foot apartment is just a little cubby to store your stuff while you bask in the glory of everything a city should be.

Cleveland could be that way, or it’s not hard for me to imagine some slightly more San Francisco-esque version of Cleveland (and I mean that just in the walkable/vibrant sense). We have some of the right ingredients coalescing around the West Side Market right now, which is why this parking pricing discussion came up in the first place.

And then I started to feel calm again — a little depressed still, but a little more thoughtful. Even though Cleveland is just now starting to charge for parking, at least we are taking this small (not as drastic as I’d like) step forward.

Cleveland has made a lot of leaps lately in sustainable transportation, at least when it comes to cycling. We’re adding bikeways all over the west side (and some on the east side too!) We’ve got new vulnerable users safety ordinances. In one year, we really have made a lot of strides. There’s even a potential regional land use plan coming together, the NEOSCC.

And then I began to worry. Because while we’re making some good progress in Cleveland lately– we really are!–progress in Cleveland can be very, very, ver-y sloo-oo-ow. On transportation and land use–livable city amenities that are helping reshape attitudes toward cities across the country–we’re so far behind places like San Francisco, and we’re moving slower than they are to boot.

People will say, “YOU CAN’T COMPARE CLEVELAND TO SAN FRANCISCO!!!” But Cleveland is going to have to compete with cities like that in the coming decades. They are moving so fast toward sustainability and urbanism. We are just dipping our toe in the water, finding out it’s cold and looking at that giant pool with trepidation.

So I don’t intend to bash Cleveland. I applaud its efforts. These things are difficult. But I think it’s got to start moving faster, because the rest of the world is waking up and realizing that the 1990s SUVs-and-McMansion-studded ideal is over and we haven’t moved on yet.

The West Side Market and Ohio City are truly unique regional amenities. Let’s not pretend that they can be replaced by a grocery store and a generic suburb. Because they lack peers in the region, they are valuable–very valuable–and we have been undervaluing them.

$2 isn’t too much to charge to park to come to the West Side Market. And I bet if there were less parking and more fun businesses and destinations you could charge far more. That’s when the neighborhood will truly have arrived–when there aren’t enough places to park. And then, the people that complain about paying to park, they will put on their best clothes and drive in from wherever just to be seen on those sidewalks, because they want to be in a vibrant city too–or at least where the cool kids are.

I’ve seen it happen. It could happen here. But free parking isn’t what makes places like that. The things that make neighborhoods attractive are places you can walk inside, or peer at, or sit on and gawk, places where you can be seen, and bump into people and be exposed to interesting things. Those are the kind of things surface parking lots vaporize, and then run over, and then swallow and laugh while they pick their teeth. They are tyrants who have sucked the fun out of public spaces in thousands of places in Cuyahoga County alone. There are scarcely half a dozen places left in 30 counties that they don’t rule with an tightly-clenched apshalty fist.

If there’s one place we can spare, dear God, let it be the West Side Market in Ohio City. We need to have the self-confidence and wisdom to do that, at least.


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