In the past few weeks, two historic events have occurred in downtown Kent that point to our sustainable future; the annual Kent Heritage Festival and the visit of Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood to sign an agreement for PARTA’s multi-modal center.
At the Heritage Festival, several blocks of Main and Water Streets are closed down for an entire day and thousands of people come downtown to enjoy live music, fairgrounds food, restaurants and stores, arts and crafts, kid’s activities, and even historic train rides.
The new Multi-Modal center, envisioned by the PARTA board nearly 20 years ago, promises, in the words of Secretary Hood, to have a ‘transformational’ affect on transit service for our county, the city of Kent, and Kent State University.
The Heritage Festival confirms, every year, that if people want to come downtown, parking isn’t an issue. Indeed every year the city closes down hundreds of parking spaces yet tens of thousands manage to show up and wait in the hot sun to buy elephant ears!
The Multi-Modal Center will allow easy access of people into downtown Kent without automobiles and can, if we chose to, free up valuable real estate for creating a habitable and desirable downtown.
At the Heritage festival, the willingness of people to stand in line to take a five mile ride on a slow train, reminds us of “the good old days” when most visitors and college students arrived at the Erie Depot, now a destination themed restaurant, and took a taxi to the campus. There are many that envision the day when the multi-modal center with buses, and even a new high speed train network, will perform that same function.
The multi-modal center has 100 parking spaces, to which developers believe we need to add hundreds more by deferring tax income to pay for them. (Through Tax Increment Financing) What people are forgetting is that with the multi-modal parking, we will already have 550 spaces in downtown that are mostly paid for by the public. We give most of this parking away, rent free, and as a result, discount the value of transit service to the point that most people don’t bother to use it. We forget the lesson of the Heritage festival;people find a way to get downtown if it is worth coming to.
Of course, as everyone that studies cities or has lived in one knows, it is a densely developed, transit-oriented, multi-storied, pedestrian friendly, mixed-use downtown with well designed green spaces that will draw businesses and residences as well as commerce. Such cities are also necessary for our future prosperity, as articulated most succinctly by David Owens in “Green Metropolis”, “the future of humanity will be predominantly urban. From an environmental point of view, we need to apply ourselves to making city life appealing and life-enhancing, not wishing that doing so were unnecessary.” (p201)
Compact, dense cities are the only way to a sustainable world because they allow us to live smaller, closer and drive less.
The multi-modal center will provide us with the ability to return our downtown to its heritage as a “transit oriented development, ” (TOD) which historically was accessed by train and interurban. Growing communities across the nation are creating TOD’s because they understand that the quality of life, cost of living and use of resources point to a future of pedestrian and bicycle friendly communities tied together by transit and served by regional farmland. The ecological imperative is that we use this historic moment to build on our historic downtowns to create core neighborhoods in Kent, Ravenna and other village centers that will use less energy, create less pollution, and be places where people of all mobility’s may live independently.
Our work, as the citizens of Portage County, is to demonstrate our gratitude to the people of the United States for their vote of confidence that we will use their investment well. Instead of building even more parking that consumes valuable real estate, we need to allocate our existing parking to those who really need it. This will include market-based pricing to cover the real cost of the spaces and discourage wasteful use of our existing multi-million dollar on street parking public asset. Indeed, there are nearly 500 private parking spaces in downtown Kent that all were once productive building lots, and can be again if we can create a transit future.
Will those of us who live within ¾ of a mile of a transit stop (which is most of Kent and Ravenna) walk or ride buses if the full cost of parking is assessed? Those who live within a mile and half off downtown or a bus stop can bike, or bike and ride, and we will, especially as parking lots are turned into productive stores, restaurants, offices, mini parks and residences.
I share the skepticism of some that our multimodal center will become just another dirty downtown bus station, frequented only by those too poor or disabled to be able to drive a car and subsidized by tax dollars. The only way to keep this from happening is to follow the lead of some of my friends from Franklin Township who rolled their sleeves up to make the Heritage Festival a success. They “owned” our downtown and understand its importance to the life of our community. They were willing to sacrifice their leisure to make it better for a day, and show case its wonders to all who would come. Are we likewise willing to embrace a vision for downtown that means we might need to give up convenience for conviviality, free parking for freedom from our addiction to gasoline? We have our Heritage, and the people of the United States, waiting to see what we will do.