Let’s take a long look at parking in Naperville

Were he to write it today, Tennyson would probably say that in the spring a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of parking. At least it does around here. Our City Council was scheduled to pass an ordinance last night authorizing a delegated sale of general obligation bonds for $17.340 million.

Almost $7 million of that is to construct a 440-space parking garage on Water Street, to serve the Hotel Indigo and the Water Street development, and begin the expansion of the Central Parking facility. It is the latter project that gives me some concern, since I have no idea how successful the hotel will be.

The current theory is that as soon as the Water Street garage is finished, people will be able to park there instead of parking in the three-story garage on Chicago Avenue. That will allow the city to begin doing whatever it is they decide to do to the Central Parking facility, such as tearing it down, without hurting downtown businesses. After all, it only requires people to walk an additional 6 to 10 minutes, about one third of a mile.

But what if they don’t? After noticing that much of our downtown traffic consists of people driving around trying to get a parking space 100 feet closer to their intended destination, I decided to ask a few folks whether they would go that extra distance. Most people, young and old, said they probably would not.

I suspect people give me different answers than they give representatives of the city. I’m not an important person, and there’s nothing I can do to cause them trouble. They know that what they tell me will remain in absolute confidence, and they don’t particularly care what I think of them, so why wouldn’t they tell me the truth?

The people didn’t say they would never use the new lot to go to stores in the middle of town. They said they would do it if they “had to,” or planned to spend part of the day going from store to store. But would they go for a bite to eat or to buy some item they could get elsewhere? No.

Now, admittedly this is about as unscientific as you can get, but I hope the council seriously considers the possibility that several stores could go out of business if the Central Parking facility isn’t available for a year or two. We all know what people should do, and we also know that they almost never do it.

Late in the year, the council asked the staff to look into the possibility of adding on to the existing lot. If that is what they wanted they should have simply told the staff to find a way to add on, because otherwise the answer is always going to be “Impossible, the lot wasn’t designed to be enlarged.” The Edifice Complex, the appeal of fancy new construction with ground floor amenities, will always win out over tedious re-engineering.

If we assume that you need 320 square feet per space including lanes, which actually may be 30 feet low, and that it costs $65 per square foot, with union labor, then it would cost something like $11 million just to get back the same amount of parking we have now. Given that it is always possible to add on to a parking garage, and given the possibility of putting some fine folks out of business, we have to ask ourselves what makes good sense.

Yes, it is spring, at least it was for a single day on Monday, and yes, people are going to start driving downtown more now. And yes, if we are still not going to embrace public transportation we probably are going to need a few hundred more spaces. But there is an ancient expression that probably applies here, primum non nocere. First, do no harm.