A plan to replace a parking lot in Westport with new development is drawing criticism from both ends of the pro and anti-urban spectrum. People on the pro-car, anti-urban side are criticizing the development because it removes parking spaces and increases density, which triggers their ‘where am I going to park/this neighborhood is unsafe’ reflex. On the other side, the pro-urban crowd’s criticism centers on the idea that a fast food pad site is inappropriate for Westport and that this proposal does not go far enough in replacing land dedicated to car storage with active uses.
The interesting wrinkle in all of this is that an opposition movement has been launched that seems to have a multiple personality disorder – it is against the proposal because it takes away parking, and it is against the proposal because it not consistent with the compact, urban nature of Westport. The inconsistent message runs the risk of being dismissed as NIMBYism and dilutes the legitimate urbanist criticism of this development.
This post attempts to untangle the garbled mess of issues and concerns floating out there and to create a consistent, pro-urban position on the proposed development.
What is being proposed?
Two small, single-story commercial buildings are being proposed for the site that is currently a parking lot on the southeast corner of Westport Road and Mill Street. The building directly on the corner would include a Qdoba, and the building adjacent to Harry’s would include Pickleman’s and a national chain cookie shop. The rest of the site would remain parking.
What are the Issues?
Much of the criticism leveled at this development is that it would exacerbate parking problems by eliminating parking spots. There is a parking problem in Westport, but it’s not what you think. The problem is that there’s too much land dedicated to personal car storage and not enough land dedicated to active uses. This oversupply of parking is highlighted by the fact that the massive parking structure between Mill and Pennsylvania (located less than 500 feet from the proposed project) is empty most of the time despite it being completely free to park there. The proposed development is better than what is existing; more of the site is being used for active uses. However, it is far less than what is ideal, which is that the lot is completely filled with active uses, and parking is served by neighboring parking structures and lots or in an underground structure below the development.
I have not seen walkability come up much in the debate about this proposal, which is strange given that Westport is the most walkable neighborhood in Kansas City (as measured by walkscore.com), and this is a major part of its identity and appeal. Walkable urbanism has well-documented benefits ranging from higher real estate values, greater retail spending, improved health, increased safety, even increased creativity and innovation. Despite Westport’s success in this area there is much room for improvement and a need to protect Westport from losing its advantage as a walkable neighborhood.
Walking needs to be safe, convenient, comfortable, and interesting to compete with driving. Ideally, this site would increase pedestrian convenience by hosting multiple kinds of shops and services. It would increase safety by eliminating driveways and adding residences above the shops to add ‘eyes on the street.’ It would make it more comfortable to walk by providing a wide, uninterrupted sidewalk, buffered from the street, and it would be interesting because there would be consistent building frontage and large windows showcasing all kinds of goods and services.
The proposed development is certainly is better than what is existing. The buildings front the street and appear to include entrances on Westport Road and storefront windows. However, it falls short of the mark by retaining a driveway on Westport Road, which is a pedestrian conflict point, leaving a gap in the street frontage, limiting the diversity of services by its single story, small footprint buildings, and failing to capitalize on the opportunity to add additional residential to Westport.
Folks have criticized the proposed development because it would increase traffic congestion. In my view, additional traffic is not such a bad thing because this is a destination place, and it should not be optimized for maximum mobility. Additional traffic forces people slow down and gives other modes of transportation a boost. The ideal scenario described above could arguably have a lesser impact on traffic congestion by eliminating the driveway and encouraging walking.
Plenty of criticism has been leveled at the proposed development for harming the neighborhood character. There are two issues at play here. The first has to do with aesthetics, a single story retail strip and fast food pad site do not represent the urban look of the neighborhood. The second is a concern that another national chain fast food establishment would degrade the identity of Westport as a unique district full of one-of-a-kind local business. Both of these issues are legitimate concerns.
When it comes to safety in an urban area, the main elements are lighting, a well defined public realm, maintenance, and natural surveillance, aka ‘eyes on the street.’ Active uses that generates foot traffic and eyes on the street increases safety over a parking lot. The proposed development would increase safety over the existing parking lot. However, the ideal use of the lot, a mixed use structure that fills the majority of the space, would enhance safety much more than the existing condition or the proposed development.
This debate has been interesting because it brings together folks from opposite ends of the spectrum. Supporters of quality urban development should make their argument distinct from the people complaining about parking going away. This development falls short because is not the highest and best use of the site and it dilutes the local flavor of the neighborhood. This site would be best used as a multi-story mixed use development that fills the site with active uses and local businesses.