The  great parking debate: Walkability essential for successful downtown

In his letter Pedro Pachano writes: “Denying the opportunity to build housing and/or commercial space in the center of town in favor of private parking will be in direct contravention of the zoning bylaws and Master Plan which are sensitive to affordability and livability.”

To the editor:

On May 18 the Great Barrington Selectboard will deliberate once again on what has turned out to be a very controversial proposal to convert a lot in the center of downtown, with a public amenity and two large rental apartments, into a private parking lot for the new tenants of the recently refurbished Berkshire Block. Unfortunately, the focus of the debate has shifted from the merits of the actual proposal before the Selectboard to the Foster’s parking lot to the north and its accessibility to the public. The pertinent question is whether 78 parking spots for the proposed 28 to 30 small offices are useful and beneficial to the vibrancy of downtown Great Barrington.

Understanding Great Barrington is to understand that the cultural and commercial core of town has hard limits. There is one way in and one way out of town, and there is little land to expand. Of the finite land we have downtown, a parking lot will take a large part of that supply out of productive use. Our land is the base resource from which we are able to thrive. Although it is needed, parking lots can rob the town of financial productivity, handcuffing entrepreneurs who contribute value to the town such as small business owners, developers, renters and homeowners. Providing more parking is the most powerful inducer of more automobile use at the expense of walking, biking and public transit. Our culture of providing easy (and mostly “free”) parking only encourages more of the many detrimental effects of driving.

The town has placed the responsibility of deciding most of our land use special permits on the Selectboard, yet there has been little discussion among board members of the “opportunity costs” associated with the application. As I stated before, our land is our most important resource and every parcel that is not placed into valuable, productive use creates what is known as an “opportunity cost,” the loss of social and economic potential by choosing poorly one use over another. The opportunity costs of choosing parking virtually assures that housing becomes scarcer and less affordable, businesses are more challenged to open or expand, and our town loses tax revenue because parking lots have lower assessed valuation than improved lots. They can also adversely affect the value of abutting properties.

This is not to say that parking is not needed, particularly in Great Barrington’s cultural and commercial core. However, walkability is key to a successful downtown. Anything that diminishes walkability should be avoided. A block off Main Street, the School Street parcel is surrounded by a highly trafficked area with a coming 88-room hotel, 45 units of affordable housing, the Co-op and 22 new condominiums. Do we really want to encourage even more automobile traffic on this tiny street at the expense of walkability? The decision to be made about the School Street lot comes with potentially huge opportunity costs.

Another opportunity cost is the effective contribution to the scarcity of housing and the affordability of both dwellings and office space, the very definition of gentrification. I think we can agree that in the last 20 years capital migration, particularly from New York City, has contributed greatly to the increase of real estate prices, especially in the neighborhoods surrounding downtown. We should be familiar with the local effects on housing availability and costs caused by 9/11, and should be extra vigilant about the potential effect the current pandemic will have on people who currently live and can afford to leave the city by not creating more scarcity.

Denying the opportunity to build housing and/or commercial space in the center of town in favor of private parking will be in direct contravention of the zoning bylaws and Master Plan which are sensitive to affordability and livability. In addition, parking will surely be added as an invisible charge into the leases of Berkshire Block tenants, as a result of the owner’s purchase of two parcels for parking — making it more expensive for businesses to open and thrive downtown. Choosing parking over other productive uses will have very large, long-term implications for our town.

Destinations are anywhere a person would go out of their way to purposefully visit or spend time. Despite the parking challenges of downtown Great Barrington, it remains a regional if not national destination. Creating yet another “dead zone” in an area that will soon be bustling again with visitors and residents would be a huge disappointment — an opportunity lost. The current proposal, for some inexplicable reason, provides more than two parking spots per office.

I hope the Selectboard can prove itself to be an enlightened steward of our land use policy, particularly as it concerns our downtown core. They have been giving this mandate by the Annual Town Meeting to create a thriving and special destination for residents and visitors. Its mandate is to create a special destination for both residents and visitors, not to settle for the lesser of two evils.

Pedro Rafael Pachano

Great Barrington

The writer is a Planning Board member and Design Advisory Committee chairman, but he is writing as an individual.