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Editorial: A better use of parking spaces

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Babas on Cannon

Two on-street residential parking spaces have been converted for dining outside Babas on Cannon. Robert Behre/Staff

Fourteen years ago, we editorialized against a group of developers and others who fed a King Street meter, set up a table in the vacant parking space and had a picnic (and called a reporter). Charleston police wrote them a ticket for "obstructing public ways," which was quietly dismissed days later.

"Their social-statement protest mirrored a similar one staged last month in San Francisco and other West Coast locales where anti-auto sentiment abounds," we said at the time, adding, "The drivers of automobiles are people, and important, too. Many of those people know that finding a parking place downtown is tough enough without losing them for a purpose for which they were never intended."

But time changes things, and the developer involved, Vince Graham, recently informed many involved in that 2006 protest that, 14 years later, the city has allowed on-street parking spaces next to Babas on Cannon to be used for dining. It set off a lively string of emails under the "Progress!" subject line.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, we have urged the city to rethink how its streets and sidewalks are used, partly because using outdoor spaces can limit the spread of the virus. And, crucially, providing new flexibility to restaurants and other businesses could help them survive their pandemic-related economic struggles. We're encouraged that the city's first such attempt, closing a portion of South Market Street, appears to be working well.

We're eager to see more: A city always must strike a balance between providing convenient parking and creating a safe, attractive public realm that will appeal to residents and visitors alike. It's a balancing act, and the good thing about both the South Market and the Babas on Cannon closures is they're temporary steps that can be reversed — or expanded — as feedback continues to come in.

City Councilman Ross Appel wants the city to consider waiving parking requirements for businesses in certain areas, at least on a limited, experimental basis. "Businesses are struggling right now, and we need to come up with ways to make it easier for folks and sometimes that means deregulating, getting out of the way, making business less expensive and less costly," he says.

It's an idea worth pursuing. What's going on outside Babas on Cannon is rather different than what Mr. Graham and his fellow provocateurs tried to pull off 14 years ago. The Babas closure is permitted and designed to help an existing business, not an attempt to lob a grenade, albeit a harmless one, into the debate over our public space. It's good to see the debate continue, because while a downtown can suffer from too little parking, it can suffer even more with too few viable businesses.

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