In Las Vegas, parking is at once the promise and peril of downtown redevelopment. On one hand, we’ve got a lot of it. Compared to other big cities, it’s freakishly easy here to find a parking spot on the street, in a metered lot, in a garage or even in a free lot (and don’t think I’ll tell you where those are). At most, you’re a block away from the Arts District or Fremont Street or anywhere in between.
On the other hand, all those parking spots contribute to an overall urban lethargy downtown. Las Vegas Boulevard, as it runs through downtown, has as many parking lots as it does quality buildings. And even the vaunted Fremont East district runs only a couple blocks before its streetscape fades out amid a surfeit of asphalt.
For all the discourse in society these days about resource sharing—conserving oil, or water or electricity—the most essential thing we share is space. Parking is emblematic of the challenges and opportunities we face with regard to sharing space. Researchers at the University of California at Berkeley estimate there may be as many as 2 billion parking spaces across the country—this averages out to between six and seven spaces per person. If the average parking space is 200 square feet, this, very roughly, suggests the Las Vegas Valley may have more than 90 square miles of space strictly devoted to parking. And a great deal of it lies empty.
Overabundant parking can create a vicious cycle: We begin to expect more than we need, and when the ratio of spaces-per-person is less than we’re accustomed to, an emotion somewhere between peeved entitlement and panic sets in. Downtown Las Vegas has tried to ease its denizens out of this cycle. Inspired by the 2000 Centennial Plan, city ordinances lay out the option of different downtown buildings sharing parking. Instead of having to provide so much parking depending on the intended use of a parcel or building, developers can reduce the parking requirements if there’s parking nearby that’s used at different hours of the day.
For instance, the Historic Fifth Street School, which was renovated a few years ago, houses an auditorium that holds 400 people, but there are only a few dozen spaces on site—additional parking is on adjacent blocks. The smaller lot helps sell the entire block as a place that belongs to the whole city, not just the handful of tenants who lease space there. This sharing will continue in downtown’s blockbuster projects: The new city hall and The Smith Center for the Performing Arts are to share a parking structure.
“There is plenty of parking; it’s just a matter of when it’s used,” says Robert Dorgan, who runs UNLV’s Downtown Design Center at the Fifth Street School. “If every block has parking on it, that’s a lot of spaces that are available at different times of day.” The sharing of space is an idea whose time came and went and may be coming back, not a moment too soon. The country we’ve built over the past 75 years is based on completely independent spaces. Postwar zoning didn’t like to mix uses, the way certain of us don’t want the corn to brush up against the chicken on our plate, so space became sealed into evermore private pieces: Trains gave way to cars. Cars with many occupants gave way to cars with one. Parks gave way to private backyards. The hustle and bustle of markets and main street yielded to the more controlled mingling at malls, which in turn were supplanted by the big box centers, which pretty much killed any desire to mingle or linger or be around other human beings.
Lately, though, sharing has begun to get its swagger back. We’re seeing newer, better public parks at the sprawling edges of town—Exploration Park at Mountain’s Edge, with its fantastic hill, or Red Ridge Park in the southwest valley, with commanding views of both the Strip and Red Rock. And we’re beginning to rediscover the value of the commons in private-public spaces such as The District and Town Square. Hey, maybe it’s only pseudo-public space, but if it whets people’s appetite for more, it’s a good start.
Parking was a symbol of the 20th-century move toward the private—one person needs one car that needs one space—but now there’s a chance it can become a symbol for the benefits that derive from sharing a common resource. If we keep exploring the trend toward sharing—and given our evolving priorities about conservation and efficiency, we probably ought to—what might be the next frontier? Maybe shared office spaces for start-up companies: Rent a couple of desks and a conference room from 9 to 1, three days a week, while another small firm rents them from 1 to 5. How about turning over an old building downtown where people can store their bicycles, shower and then go to work? Or how about turning over space at Cashman Center to highlight local entrepreneurs and services?
There are many more things we could be sharing with each other—our expertise, our time, our love—but first we have to create more environments where, physically, we can happily occupy the same space.
Shared spaces require more than just the presence of many people—otherwise Wal-Mart, or the grocery store, or the bank on payday would suffice. They also require that we have a personal stake in these spaces, that we take pleasure in being there and in being around other people. It’s the difference between the shared space at the Bellagio fountains, even when it’s impossibly crowded, and the shared space of some long hallway at the back of a casino. It’s other people that make the space worth inhabiting.