Thursday, July 30

A visit to Roanoke City Market

Earlier this week, we stopped in to the City of Roanoke for some dinner. Of course, I wanted to find somewhere in the downtown, and, being spoiled with Charlottesville restaurants, preferred to find a place with outdoor seating. This brought us right into the heart of downtown, the historic City Market. This public space is a wonderful amenity to the city, and I don't want to be one to rush to criticize a place I've only visited once, but I was struck by one exceedingly strange reality: the central square is being used as a parking lot (at least while we were there).

I counted 26 spaces in the lot. That's it. Later, I found in a study conducted with DPZ in 2006 that there are 1500 parking spaces in the immediate vicinity of the market. This small lot right in the middle is a drop in the ocean, yet it creates an outsized impact on the public space. While eating my dinner about five feet from a pick-up truck bumper, I imagined what a central public square could look like. Maybe two prominent street trees with benches sitting in the shade, bricks and stone shaped into an ornamental pattern. Currently, there are only about five or six outdoor tables pushed up against the building, all of which were occupied on this Tuesday night. With the empty lot being fully utilized, the outdoor seating could pour out into the center creating much more vitality.

I understand that parking is a major problem for Roanoke. 93% of residents in the city commute by private vehicle, and the other 2/3 of the metro area that lives outside of the city are surely even less likely to walk, bike, or bus in. The downtown is walkable, but it's an island. The inner neighborhoods are pretty well cut off from downtown by an interstate, a moat of surface parking lots or vacant industrial lots, and a railroad track. Even so, if only 26 people could be convinced to leave their cars at home, the city could enhance it's core greatly. This seems like a reasonable possibility.

While the DPZ plan stops short of eliminating the parking lot, they did say this:

"The design team noticed that walking around City Market Square requires pedestrians to wade through a maze of car bumpers. Although to some degree, wagons, cars and trucks parked in the Square have always been part of its history, avoiding those vehicles does not provide a truly first-rate pedestrian experience."
Based on their recommendations and renderings, it's hard to see how the parking lot could coexist in any way. They recommend enlarging the farmers' market stalls, turning the City Market building "inside out" with seating and vendors, adding a stand-alone ticket kiosk to the square, encouraging outdoor festivals and musical entertainment. All of this requires space and an aesthetically pleasing urban environment. Even if shoppers have to walk an extra 50 yards, I can't imagine how this plan would not be a great benefit to vendors in the market.


Eric Orozco said...

I'm in the midst of two market plans and images of Roanoke's stalls and the DPZ conceptual images have been quite inspirational to me. I'll have to check this market out.

Unfortunately for their subsistence, convenient parking is a necessary evil for most outdoor markets in the South. That's why we need streetcars. :) But there's got to be better strategies to integrate parking needs and pedestrian market space, I agree.

Museice said...

Roanoke is a strange beast. I agree with your comments and have read the 'Study' but unfortunately every time the question of eliminating some of the parking Downtown is encouraged the voice from the citizenry is a load "there's not enough parking now". These citizens are the same one who will not, under any circumstances, walk an extra block to go shopping. Our steadily rising voter base refuses to shop unless they can park directly in front of the store the wish to patronize. This has lead to a stagnation of The City Market Area with new designs shrugged off as too much change. The City is currently working (an interesting word for Roanoke) on The Market Building and even after a wonderful designs paid for by private organizations we, to the detriment of our future development, once again will simply spruce up the old space and call it 'New'.

Erics comment about convenient parking is valid but it once again proves the point of 'must parking in front of where I want to shop. There are hundreds of parking spaces surrounding The City Market but, and this is the major problem for Roanokers, these spaces are located in Parking Garages and of course the free spaces available are one block too far from The Market. It is inconceivable to ask Roanokers to walk from their car to a store or restaurant but visitors from out of town think nothing of this perceived 'how dare they make me walk' situation. Roanoke built a multi-milion dollar Art Museum in the her of Downtown, in the same location where there 'is no parking' but visitors would never assume they could park for free or that they could park directly in front of this attraction. Instead visitors, who have come to spend their money in Roanoke, will park and walk and enjoy the sights. But as you have so perfectly described the sights they now see are the bumpers of vehicles and the maze of stationary hunks of metal.
We have been trying for years to change this 'Heart of Roanoke' to make it more pedestrian friendly but the voting block of our wonderful City continues to increase in age and continues to want to park as close as possible to their destination. While thinking only of themselves they certainly make others drive away.
This topic frustrates and saddens me.

Daniel said...

Eric, you work on the coolest projects. I totally understand that, as a designer, you can't urge any wholesale change in parking. That has to come from the public. I think DPZ was in the same position. They did recommend a streetcar route too, by the way.

Museice, thanks for the local knowledge. I really did enjoy my visit to Roanoke, and the new museum is a nice touch. I understand your first Cicyclovia event was today. I hope that was a success.

Zed said...

Roanoke IS a classic case. Quite the conservative community with aging infrastructure and a strange history of planning decisions. As Museice points out, they desperately need to attract more people downtown. But, it will be a while before it all works, as the traffic circulation will take a bit of untangling, too.

Is the Brazilian restaurant still there? Amazing black bean soup!

CSQTown Planner said...

This is an excellent overview of one of the great, and too often overlooked. A fantastic weekly food and wine market showcasing Wellington artisans. This will be a fantastic addition to the waterfront, and we’re pleased to support. This is fantastic. Thanks for share such kind of post.

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