The owner of Cake Love is on the record wanting more parking for businesses on U Street. Many folks commenting on his blog (myself included) are trying to convince him otherwise. Warren followed up on his comments on August 3:
I understand and really like the density argument: more people walking will bring success for street level retail shops, these are my core customers, and traffic robs a neighborhood of potential. A lot of the customers that shop in Mid-city are walkers, but not everyone, and this city doesn’t have the density of Manhattan everywhere. Do we really need 1,500 new parking spots, probably not, but couldn’t the Mid-city merchants use more? I appreciate the feedback, but I invite people to ask other businesses if they could drop their driving customers as quickly as the mood suggests in the comments submitted. Drivers matter, too, for a urban environment to thrive.
The thing is, drivers do matter. But urbanism is about playing to your core strengths and advantages, and no matter how you slice it, parking is not going to be the core advantage of an urban area.
The other night my colleague and I were convening a merchant roundtable and started by distributing a questionnaire that asked the merchants to describe their typical customer. Things like where they come from, whey they shop in the district, what problems they see with the district…etc. Knowing your customer and responding to their needs and concerns is the foundation of a successful business. Unfortunately, many of the merchants in the room couldn’t answer some of these basic questions. This simple questionnaire pointed to a fundamental problem within the district – merchants cannot pinpoint the reasons why customers are choosing to spend their dollars elsewhere. Without this critical information, there is little that merchants can do to address the problems and improve the shopping experience for their customers.
What I found interesting about that meeting, but not too unusual, was the emphasis that merchants placed on the shortage of parking as the primary reason their businesses are suffering. The mood in the room was tense as merchants lashed out in frustration at the parking situation. Here’s the rub – two follow up roundtables with residents and district employees found that parking was in fact a MINOR concern. Their real concerns were related to the trash, litter, unappealing storefronts and ‘grimy’ interiors of stores…these were the real reasons that many hesitated to shop in the district. The disconnect between what merchants thought was the problem and what the customers actually said was the problem was amazing – and hopefully eye-opening for many of the merchants.
Everyone wants to help small businesses. The thing is that what the businesses want isn’t exactly what’s best for either them or the city they inhabit. We could all use a better understanding of exactly how urban transportation and retail markets work, particularly retailers.