Downtown Birmingham, Time for a parking revolution!

David Fleming
David Fleming

Today’s guest columnist is David Fleming.

Parking lots are dead spaces. Nothing we can construct sucks the life and vibrancy out of a place more than a parking lot.

Yet we cannot seem to live without parking. Views on parking dominate almost every issue related to downtown growth. We hear: 

“There is not enough parking.” 

“I don’t understand how to park downtown.”  

“I don’t like parking decks.”  

“Parking is too expensive.”  

“Public decks and lots are not clean and are scary.” 

In business recruitment and development, parking is often the “tail that wags the dog.” Developers create dedicated parking plans for each project because they know future customers will not want to deal with public parking. Also, developers who invest millions of dollars in a project must satisfy their investors, most of whom will not support a project without a plan for adequate, dedicated parking.

Those developers and investors are just working from the facts. Over 98% of all trips in the region are made by people driving a car—and those cars have to sit somewhere when they are not moving. 

When you combine all those private parking arrangements with additional non-business-specific private lots and public parking options, a lot of real estate is wasted on parking. The map below shows, in red, how much of downtown’s real estate is devoted to parking. When I look at this map, I also mourn how many historic buildings have been demolished to create parking lots. 

Downtown Birmingham parking lot map
Downtown Birmingham parking lot map

If you imagine a complete row of buildings on a block to be like teeth in a smile, then almost every block in downtown has some teeth missing to serve the need for parking.

And yet, when people describe the kind of place they want to live, work and play they paint a picture of a historic, walkable city with active storefronts and visual interest. They want to be able to walk to great destinations, feel safe doing it, and it be interesting along the way. However, they also want to conveniently park their car. 

Are these desires incompatible? At REV we believe they do not have to be, but to “have it all” will require an intentional, well-designed, and well-managed parking ecosystem that supports the vibrant and complete experience we want downtown. Imagine a public parking system that functions so efficiently that Birmingham does not even need surface parking lots anymore! Surface lots can fill a higher and better use as new mixed-use developments that fill in vibrancy gaps downtown as they provide more places to live, work and play.  

However, historically, Birmingham’s parking ecosystem has been fractured and has not delivered on its potential to drive economic growth and enrich the downtown experience.

It is time for a parking revolution. 

Every revolution requires a guiding vision. At REV, we propose the vision of an easy-to-navigate downtown parking system that drives the growth of downtown Birmingham as the premier mixed-use, walkable place in our region to live, work and play. Cities across the country are innovating in the parking realm, and Birmingham should be among them. 

Lexington, Kentucky, has become a model of parking innovation. They consolidated on-street and off-street parking, which better supports business and new growth. They upgraded their technology to improve the customer experience.  And they have creatively implemented annual ticket elimination programs by partnering with the community for food drives, where citizens with tickets can have their balances eliminated by donating food.

In Savannah, Georgia, they have innovated beyond addressing parking demand; they have leveraged the value of the parking system to improve the bigger picture. Like Lexington, they first consolidated the on and off-street parking system. Then, the City of Savannah Parking Services Group began investing their parking revenues beyond parking, supporting better mobility, transportation, and customer service in the Savannah Metropolitan area.

The Birmingham Parking Authority (BPA) manages over 8,000 public parking spaces in the city center – enough parking spaces to fill up 23 football fields – and that does not include the public parking spaces located on-street and in privately-owned surface lots and decks.  

Under its new leader Andre Davis, the Birmingham Parking Authority is about to embark on developing a new comprehensive master plan for its system. It is time for Birmingham to cast a new vision for how our parking system can create downtown vibrancy and economic vitality. We all will have to challenge parking as we know it and expand our vision. Already, the City is considering changes to zoning that will require less parking for proposed developments, which is an encouraging step.   

REV Birmingham looks forward to working alongside the BPA, the City and the business community to advocate for improvements that will create a truly user-friendly parking system that feeds downtown with even more vibrancy and removes parking as a reason for anyone to avoid downtown. It is possible to gain a better parking system and a better downtown in the process. 

 Let’s do it. 

David Fleming is the President and CEO of REV Birmingham, a catalyst for downtown and neighborhood commercial district revitalization.  A native of the area, David lives with his wife and son in Crestwood.

David Sher is the founder and publisher of ComebackTown.  He’s past Chairman of the Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce (BBA), Operation New Birmingham (REV Birmingham), and the City Action Partnership (CAP).

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6 thoughts on “Downtown Birmingham, Time for a parking revolution!”

  1. Oh, David, what a great column! I want to re-christen you Mumford Jacobs, because you do understand cities so well. I’m so glad to hear that the City is thinking of lowering parking requirements for downtown developments– long overdue, in my opinion. And maybe less creepy deck designs are on the way?

    An interesting tidbit, learned from I forget where but I think from Jim Baggett, who knows a lot about Bull Connor: Aside from his egregious sins, he apparently, early in his political career, was opposed to razing commercial buildings for parking, especially buildings on corners. Think Morris House. It’s too bad he didn’t prevail on that issue.

    We should all be thankful for your wisdom– I know I am.

  2. I often use Lyft to go to UAB games to avoid the stress of finding a parking place. If rides sharing services were less expensive or if there were a public option, more people would use them and there would not be a need for as much parking.

    One good thing that came from these parking lots is that many decrepit buildings were razed to make way for these lots.

  3. David, I look forward to hearing the specifics of the parking problem solution. You mention several cities that have tackled the issue successfully. Please tell us the solutions that they employed. When will BPA roll out a plan?

  4. David, our friend Rosa stoops is a new resident of downtown Birmingham…watts building…and she would like to receive comeback town postings. Please add her to distribution. Thank you…Susan matlock

  5. City leaders and developers should go visit Greenville SC
    to see how to do this right.
    it is the most walkable, bike friendly, clean , vibrant city I’ve ever been to.

  6. David:

    It is comforting and exciting to know that we have visionaries like you in important positions. Yours can be a tough job at times, but it’s obvious that REV is making a difference!

    Like Maury, I look forward to more details.


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