Look at an empty parking space. What do you see? Nothing?

But it’s not nothing. It’s the terminal for the dominant mode of transportation, what an airport is for air travel or a station is for trains. Without a place to get out of your vehicle, transportation is pointless. The trip would just go on forever.

Now look at Munjoy Hill. What do you see? It has spectacular harbor views – free to anyone – on the Eastern Prom. It has three classy restaurants, a market with local produce and fresh-baked bread, an elementary school, hiking trails, public tennis and basketball courts and a community arts center that showcases local theater and music. And, sometimes, it can be a hard place to park.

The neighborhood’s scarce parking is the major objection to what would be a multimillion-dollar expansion of the St. Lawrence Community Arts Center, a planned landmark building that would be privately funded and operated as a community asset on what is now a vacant lot. But a small group of neighbors says if it means losing reliable and free on-street parking, the city should just say “no.”

What we pay to store our cars is usually a hidden cost, slipped into our rents, the prices we pay in stores or our tax bill, but the St. Lawrence dust-up in Portland brings it out into the open.

An empty parking space may look like nothing, but if keeping it empty is worth more than an investment in the city’s cultural life that would increase property values, it shows how much we are really willing to pay for parking.

Put this way, it may sound like a crazy choice, but it is the same one that has driven public policy for the last century, and it’s one we will have to rethink if cities like Portland are going to survive. Every car needs a parking space. Every driver needs a few – one at home, one at work and a couple others scattered around wherever he may want to stop. The cost of all these parking spaces adds up, especially in cities.

A study of two New England cities shows how high those costs can go. Cambridge, Mass., and New Haven, Conn., both instituted off-street parking requirements for all new developments in the early 1950s, but Cambridge changed its policy around 1980. According to a paper by University of Connecticut engineering students, New Haven increased off-street parking by 400 percent in those years while its residential and employed populations dropped. Off-street parking in Cambridge has increased by only 140 percent since 1952, but employment has grown by 50 percent and the residential population grew by 67 percent.

Land that’s used for parking lots can’t be used for buildings where people live and work. Cities can either grow, or they can preserve their parking, but they can’t do both.

Parking, says UCLA economist Donald Shoup, is like “a fertility drug for cars,” especially if the parking is free. In his book “The High Cost of Free Parking,” Shoup says that off-street parking requirements for developers have just brought more cars into cities and made the parking and traffic problems worse, not better. He recommends shifting the cost of parking to the people who use it, which would lead to more rational transportation choices.

The St. Lawrence parking demand management plan will go before the Planning Board this month, and it is based on a study that counted sufficient empty spaces within a five-minute walk of the theater during peak usage times.

But neighbors organized as Concerned Citizens of Munjoy Hill argue that’s not good enough.

“What if you own a home and you can’t park in front of it?” said Ralph Carmona, one of the group’s leaders. “Is that fair?”

The expectation that homeownership should come with free parking at the public’s expense is not unique to Carmona. But that attitude is what’s wrong.

Whenever a place is attractive enough to draw large numbers of people, the parking suffers. (Have you ever heard anyone say, “I went to Paris last summer, and the parking was fantastic!”?)

People drive up from Boston to go to the Old Port, where the parking is terrible. They go to the First Friday Art Walk, where you are lucky to have enough room to walk, let alone park a car, and they don’t look frustrated and miserable.

Yes, we live in an auto-centric world and concerns about parking are real, but we have to be clear about what we give up when we insist that every car should have a few free spots waiting for it.

Lively neighborhoods with a variety of services easily accessed on foot are part of what makes city life attractive, and those characteristics are not always compatible with easy parking.

Take a good look at those empty spots by the curb – they are not nothing and they are not cheap.

 

Greg Kesich is the editorial page editor. He can be contacted at 791-6481 or at  gkesich@pressherald.com