News that a venerable New England hardware store chain closed its downtown Rutland location brings to mind, once again, the just-about-insoluble commercial core problem of mid-size cities: most Americans won't spend money where they can't (easily) park.
In large cities the apartment-dwelling natives are used to shopping without POVs (privately-owned vehicles) and in small towns beyond New England, there's usually enough parking around the courthouse square near enough to the facing rows of stores to work reasonably well-but in mid-sized communities such as Rutland City, it's impossible to comply with the mandatory math of contemporary urban planning: a square foot of parking for a square foot of retail, without challenging some aspect of the typical 19th century grid-square streets-and-buildings layout.
Rutland's venerable Aubuchon store set-up had, maybe, 3,000 square feet of retail floor space; by the normal rule of commercial site planning, it would need the equivalent of, maybe, ten customer parking spaces (2,000 SF) loading dock and staff parking, (500 SF) and a share of related vehicle lanes (maybe another 500 SF or so).
The hardware store's 40-foot frontage on West Street offered just two parking spaces.
Just north along Route 7, the Town of Brandon solved part of its math problem by permitting the demolition of a bunch of historic buildings in order to pave way for a couple of parking and service lots (only as big as the in-town supermarket and drug store they serve). In Middlebury, officials paved part of the Otter Creek flood plain to service the Main Street stores an uphill, block-length distant. In St. Albans, planners decided not to decide-the town has done nothing; not surprisingly, the town still has a "parking problem".
On a larger scale and 3,000 miles away, Los Angeles, Calif., demolished nearly half of its downtown commercial square footage-it's now the lowest-density major city in the U.S. except for Youngstown and Detroit, for different sets of reasons. The City of Angels has nearly reasonable parking availability.
In the case of Johnson City, Tenn., there's enough downtown vacancies that the streetside parking works fairly well for the remaining goods and services vendors: a Darwinian solution, you might say.
Rutland City, conversely, went the other way with no demolition, instead adding a multi-deck downtown parking structure (sadly, now demolished).
I haven't the column-inches to review the parking deck's historically unsuccessful user reception, but it was placed well over a block-length from Aubuchon's and all the other storefronts sharing the few parking spaces along West Street. Although some customers might walk more than an equivalent block-length from the edge of a huge parking lot to the mall stores it serves, in the typical shopping layout, they balk at the same level of exercise when needed to patronize stores in a downtown location.
And Montpelier went still another way-with urban-perimeter free parking spaces for POVs and free shuttle bus service to and from downtown.
That's a total of four parking-solution options: the Brandon/L.A. downtown demo solution, the St. Albans do-nothing solution, the Rutland downtown parking structure solution, and the Montpelier perimeter-parking-and-shuttle solution. Of the four, I'd opine, Montpelier's solution is the most logical; it is most city friendly and very user friendly.
Downtown demolition equates to "destroy-the-village-to-save-it", a notion tried 40 years ago; doing nothing keeps the old buildings, but loses the living; a downtown parking structure exacerbates the urban-center traffic it's supposed to correct.
Getting people out of POVs and away from downtown offers, at least, a chance of a pedestrian friendly urban center where business can be transacted, particularly when the tote-bags aren't too heavy.
As for Rutland's closes downtown Aubuchon store, and similar extinct downtown enterprises which have fled to more efficient surroundings with less density and more parking, I'd guess that their management folks aren't swayed by the currently trendy keep-it-downtown (KID) ideology.
We admire the photographs of an earlier time-that of our grandparents-and choose to forget that they, or our parents, fled such surroundings as soon as they could. We wax nostalgic over walk-up apartments, streetcars named Desire, brickpaved streets, and frilly Victorian storefronts, which we personally want no part of.
We consciously choose not to put our money where our admiration is because contemporary Americans don't want to live or shop in such difficult to navigate surroundings.
In Burlington, the KID ideology trumped operational logic and led to the expansion of a logistically impossible regional hospital complex standing on an already congested site; this forced an even more impossible site plan with a $300 million price tag. It compares poorly indeed to the operational efficiency of a modern Dartmouth-Hitchcock in exurban surroundings (the two-generation-earlier Middlebury example of a much smaller Porter Hospital complex similarly situated), and the mid-20th century Rutland Regional Medical Center hospital decision to abandon downtown for a large site nearby.
As for the Rutland Aubuchon's au revoir: it seems pretty clear to me that the store's long tenure downtown would best be followed by planning for an equal tenure on a site where customers can easily carry their purchases to their POVs parked out front.
Columnist Martin Harris is a retired Vermont architect living in Tennessee.