Between the Lines By David Lias If we build it, will they come?
Young Moore III's message to the Vermillion City Council Monday had a familiar ring to it.
That familiarity, however, didn't in any way lessen its importance.
"There has been continuous debate brought to this council over an extended period of time that cites inadequate parking as a paramount concern by owners of property and businesses that function in the downtown area," he read from a memo that he prepared for the meeting. "We have inherited a business district that today is only marginally viable and will in time disappear as the focal point of our community."
Moore is a trustee of Incense Lodge #2 A.F.&A.M. that owns the building at 5 West Main Street where Stage, a clothing store, operated a retail business.
Moore is convinced that inadequate parking was a contributing factor in Stage closing its business recently before the expiration of its lease.
He told the council Monday that a new business is interested in filling the space that Stage once occupied.
There's a catch, however.
"We have a potential lessee for this property who has stated to me that he will not lease the building until there is some resolution to the downtown parking problem," Moore wrote in letter to Mayor William Radigan and members of the city council.
Moore told the council that property owners and downtown business owners are willing to enter into a consortium with the city council to develop a long term plan to strengthen the downtown district. Parking will be a major part of such a plan, he said, but certainly not the only consideration.
Moore encouraged the council to seriously consider tearing down the old police station, located near City Hall, to add parking spaces to the downtown area.
Clearly, something must be done. Downtown Vermillion is challenged by more than a number of empty retail areas. The fact that retail space is currently available on Main Street apparently holds no attraction to many of Vermillion's future business people. New retail store space is now being, or soon will be built near Jones' Food Center, Little Yotes Day Care, and in a strip mall where Bimbo's Burger Bar stood for many years. There's word out on the street that a second strip mall may also be constructed on East Cherry Street, near Barista's Brew.
Who can blame retailers for avoiding downtown? Anyone who opens a new store knows there is no guarantee that he or she will have customers, but by locating in a large building surrounded by a large, paved lot, they know potential customers will at least have a place to park.
That's half, or maybe even more, of the battle of being in business.
Perhaps it is time to seriously consider Moore's suggestion, namely, tear down an old building and put up a parking lot. But if the city builds it, will shoppers (and new businesses) locate downtown?
Last summer, a Vermillion resident attempted to secure a zoning change that would allow him to remodel the old Sears building into a structure that would house both apartments and businesses. There was a hue and cry from citizens who feared the project would consume downtown's precious parking places. The zoning change was denied. That area of downtown could be lively with construction and new potential today. Instead, it remains stagnant.
The episode proved to demonstrate that existing downtown business owners can be outright greedy when it comes to parking. If plans for downtown's parking are given further consideration, it must be remembered that if the users of parking are retailers (or restaurants, or medical offices, etc.) they will ideally want to have as much parking as their needs require and as close to their front doors as possible regardless of what local zoning requirements are.
Maybe it's time for the planners of Vermillion's downtown to turn zoning on its head a bit and consider maximum requirements as well as minimum requirements. The city should expand the concept to uses. For example, rather than requiring segregated uses, why not require (or at least facilitate) mixed uses, such as developing new parking areas that could be shared by both shoppers and say, apartment dwellers? That would open up an opportunity for some real discussion.
Vermillion citizens need to open up their minds and look at different parking configurations, geometric standards, locations, "shared" parking, etc. and get away from the old "ratio" approaches that can't even hope to address every use, mix of uses or evolving uses.
The city needs to give designers the freedom to design and to help the community reach its objectives. Maybe parking isn't the only issue. Maybe landscape along the street, access to buildings for emergency vehicles, and pedestrian circulation and access also need to be considered.
Why can't Vermillion establish what it really wants in a site design and then let the rest fall into place?