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The flat parking lot on West Avenue just west of the Walton Arts Center is arguably the most valuable land in town. Yet it has long been devoted to one of every American city's most boringly ugly but unfortunately essential, functions: storing automobiles. The arts center and TheatreSquared, along with Dickson Street establishments, all require maintenance of at least the lot's present 280-space parking capacity.

This concrete slab is an eyesore, a huge waste of opportunity and a challenge that Fayetteville has for decades delayed confronting. Large flat parking lots in the middle of a city are always a sign of spiritual decay and economic weakness. Fayetteville's Downtown Master Plan, drawn up with the enthusiastic advice of hundreds during several days of interactive "charrettes" led by the Dover-Kohl city planning organization in 2004 (our first long-range city plan was put together in the same manner in 2006), proudly declares our city's No. 1 downtown priority to be "a superbly walkable environment." Furthermore, the third priority is "smart parking. Parking should not dominate the downtown. Surface parking lots on corners disrupt the urban fabric. Parking structures should, where possible, be lined with buildings."

The resulting downtown plan specifically recommends decked parking covering most of the lot west of the arts center, surrounded on at least two sides by commercial "liner buildings" that would provide business space and hide the cars. In fact, such a structure has been suggested by many citizens beginning when the arts center opened in 1992. Given our master plan's pronouncements, a large flat block devoted merely to parking is the last thing one would expect. This block offers absolutely nothing for pedestrians: nothing to look at, no space for living, shopping, eating or drinking, in fact hardly even a place to sit down. The block is an obstacle that uselessly extends the distance pedestrians must walk to get to anything interesting. Surely our hip citizenry and thoughtful city government can do better. It's time.

The parking lot currently performs a second useful function by providing space for festivals such as Bikes, Blues & BBQ. These can be annoying but they are also a boon to local businesses and probably a necessary price to pay for the privilege of living in a beautiful, tourist-friendly city. Festival participants are, after all, simply trying to enjoy their lives and indulge in one of America's worthy founding adventures, the thrill of travel.

I offer here a few considerations concerning this property.

Since at least 2004, the central principle of Fayetteville's development has been promoting higher central density while limiting peripheral sprawl. Well-informed support for this principle can be found in essentially every urban planning study of the past several decades, for example James Kunstler's still-relevant "The Geography of Nowhere" and Alex Marshall's "How Cities Work."

Consistent with this principle, an urban structure of, say, five stories filled with shops, restaurants, offices, bars, apartments and other enterprises would be appropriate and welcome.

Parking is essential, but it should be out of sight. It's surely possible to design a wrap-around structure with hidden decked parking up to five stories plus perhaps two underground stories, providing, say, 400 to 500 spaces.

Some of my friends will disagree with this, but we don't really need more green space in the center of town. I love parks and always seek them out during my travels, but our gorgeous Wilson Park is just four short blocks north; the huge front lawn of the campus is two blocks west; the Greenway Trail wraps around half the perimeter of this block; there's a "pocket park" on the arts center property at Dickson Street and School Avenue that should be permanently opened to the general public; and there's all sorts of space for additional park benches around the arts center. On the other hand, a large part of the roof of a 5-story building could easily be devoted to a sizable and exciting "green park in the sky" like the one on the roof of Chicago's 11-story city hall.

Fayetteville's reputation as a festival destination can be preserved by finding another location for such gatherings. Space surely exists well within the city limits without having to cram it right into the most crowded and valuable part of our downtown.

Fayetteville needs to summon the civic pride, vision and economic smarts to provide an exciting urban structure with space for living, enterprise, beauty and fun while still providing plenty of parking for visitors and residents.

Commentary on 12/04/2018

Print Headline: More than a parking lot

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