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.