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Humboldt County is proposing to tear down housing to build a parking lot for a jail expansion in the heart of Eureka. Seriously.
Eureka is undergoing something of a renaissance right now. Beautiful street art is appearing on the sides of its buildings and utility boxes. Fun and funky small businesses are popping up in its business districts. Young people buying their first homes are enlivening its residential areas. Friday Night Markets are bringing people out into the streets of Old Town every week to socialize and patronize local shops.
All of this success is a result of a new appreciation for the relatively dense mix of residential, commercial and public uses found in Eureka’s core—a fact recognized and encouraged by the city’s recently adopted zoning code. But somehow the County seems to have missed that memo. Somehow the County thinks that what downtown Eureka needs is a big old parking lot—one that will take up almost an entire city block.
Urban planners sometimes call this kind of development a “parking crater” because of its resemblance to the results of a meteor strike. A big empty space devoted solely to parking in a dense, walkable downtown is a waste of valuable real estate, not to mention visually disconcerting. It is an empty tooth in the smile of a city desperate and working hard to improve.
Of course, parking is at a premium in almost every downtown. That’s practically proof of a successful city center. But decades of experience have taught planners that adding large amounts of parking does not make these districts more successful. To the contrary, it destroys the vibrant community life that brings people there in the first place.
It’s also really expensive. The County is set to spend almost $1 million to buy this property. That’s almost $30,000 for every parking space they want to build - and that doesn’t even include construction and maintenance costs. Using estimates from other cities, to construct a parking lot will cost an additional $600,000 or so, bringing the total cost to build each space to almost $45,000.
To make matters worse, the County wants to demolish a number of affordable housing units and a beloved local eatery in its quest for more short-term car storage. At a time when both Eureka and the County are supposed to be working to increase the availability of affordable housing, support local businesses, and reduce dependence on cars, that idea is pretty astounding.
The Board of Supervisors recently voted—with no discussion—to move ahead with buying this property. But they can still decide to back out, or to do something else with the property they will have. They could make this block into a productive mix of public services and amenities along with leased commercial and residential facilities—a project that fits with and encourages Eureka’s ongoing renaissance. They could offer bus passes and bike-share and car-share programs for County employees and visitors. They could ensure that the current residents and business on the block find new homes.
Let’s not let the County throw cold water on Eureka’s growing downtown success story. Let’s get something better out of this deal than a parking crater.
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Colin Fiske is the Executive Director of Coalition for Responsible Transportation Priorities.