November 28, 2005
By JOHN M. MORAN, Courant Staff Writer
An odd roadblock may be keeping some retail centers from being more efficient and lively places to shop: too much parking.
In fact, many so-called "conventional" shopping areas may have more than twice the parking spaces they need - even during peak holiday shopping periods, according to a new study by researchers at the University of Connecticut.
The two-year examination of six New England shopping sites compared downtowns in West Hartford, Northampton, Mass., and Brattleboro, Vt.,with commercial sites the study described as having conventional layouts, such as Somerset Square in Glastonbury, Glastonbury Center and Avon Center.
The study, which did not examine "big box" retailers such as Wal-Mart or enclosed malls such as Westfarms or The Shoppes at Buckland Hills, found stark differences between traditional downtown environments and shopping areas with more conventional layouts.
Mixed-use downtowns such as West Hartford Center, which combine retail, restaurant, residential and office uses within easy walking distance, make better use of parking resources, said Norman Garrick, a UConn associate professor of civil and environmental engineering and the study's lead researcher.
By contrast, conventional retail areas, such as Somerset Square in Glastonbury, may have up to double the amount of parking they actually need.
"This is indicative of the overly cautious approach that Connecticut cities have adopted in providing for parking," Garrick said.
"Connecticut towns are demanding far too much parking, thus increasing development costs, wasting land, deadening our urban centers, discouraging walking and riding, and adding to the runoff into our streams and rivers," he said in a statement accompanying the report.
The study, which was co-authored by Wesley Marshall, a UConn researcher and doctoral candidate, found that local regulations on average call for 5.5 parking spaces for every 1,000 square feet of new commercial floor area - twice what these areas actually use, even during peak holiday shopping periods.
The results of the study may seem surprising to year-end holiday shoppers scouring parking lots for a vacant space, but Garrick said that's because they focus on parking as close as they can to their destination.
"The places closer [to the stores] get filled up and that's where people are concentrating their attention. But there are lots of places on the periphery that don't get used," said Garrick, who is affiliated with UConn's Connecticut Transportation Institute.
He said local planning officials may overestimate how much parking space is needed by retailers as a way to guard against possible shortages. But that caution, he said, winds up wasting valuable real estate and draining the vitality of shopping areas.
Ronald Van Winkle, director of community services for West Hartford, agrees that an overabundance of parking can actually detract from the atmosphere of a retail center.
"Vast amounts of parking can make it easier for the car to come, but it makes it less friendly for shopping," Van Winkle said. Parking can often be tight in West Hartford Center, he said, but when people find a spot, they like the concentration and variety of shops within easy walking distance.
The traditional downtowns, Garrick said, tended to have more on-street parking, had a greater mixture of retail and office uses, and are closer to residential areas, so some visitors can walk, bicycle or use mass transit instead of driving cars.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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