Parking on the Charleston peninsula can be a challenge. In many cases, it can be expensive. Certainly, there’s not enough affordable parking on the peninsula, which is a concern for the thousands of low-wage workers who commute there every day. The recently introduced HOP park-and-ride shuttle is a big step toward addressing that problem, but it’s not nearly enough.
So city officials have ordered a comprehensive parking study to find out how to make parking more efficient and affordable in the heart of Charleston and in West Ashley’s Avondale neighborhood. It’s a necessary move.
But the study should not overlook, however, that in most of the city, there’s way too much parking. And almost all of it is free.
Take, for example, the typical strip mall on Folly Road on James Island. The shopping center anchored by Publix is about 60 percent parking. A frequently bustling shopping center at the intersection of Folly and Camp roads is about 50 percent parking. Walmart has an incredible 280,000 square feet of parking space compared to 140,000 square feet of store.
It’s the same story on Sam Rittenberg Boulevard and Savannah Highway in West Ashley and to a lesser extent on Daniel and Johns islands. As much as 60 and 70 percent of commercial land is paved over for parking. And a lot of it sits vacant at any given time.
But all that free parking is a bug, not a feature. And the fact that it’s almost always exceedingly easy to find a parking spot at the typical suburban store means that potentially productive land is not being put to its highest and best use.
Excess parking space doesn’t generate any tax revenue. It doesn’t provide nearly as much community benefit as a business, housing or green space would. It exacerbates stormwater drainage problems. It hampers walk-ability and looks ugly.
Parking minimums in the city zoning code make it all but impossible for new businesses to do anything other than build a ridiculous, unnecessary amount of new parking. Most new businesses ask to build more than the necessary amount of parking anyway.
That limits the value of suburban land both in terms of taxes and community usefulness. And it all but guarantees a car-centric, if not completely car-dependent, transportation future even as the region struggles to foster alternatives in the face of increasingly frustrating gridlock.
Indeed, that car dependency is one of the root causes of the peninsula’s parking problems as well. If so many workers didn’t have to drive themselves to work from the suburbs every day, they wouldn’t need a cheap place to park.
Charleston undoubtedly faces a challenge providing affordable parking to the employees who make the peninsula such a productive, attractive place. It’s a real problem, and vital workers shouldn’t be forced to sacrifice hours of labor just to afford a parking spot.
But Charleston also must figure out how to make the suburbs more livable and financially stable by figuring out what to do with all of that useless asphalt.