It doesn’t take a great stretch of the imagination to guess that one of the greatest concerns in retaining the viability of historic urban centers involves the accommodation of parking. Ask anyone what his or her opinion of X downtown is, and chances are excellent that the issue of where to put the car will arise within a few sentences. Planners, urban theorists, public administrators, and business leaders have all stood on the soapbox to assert their positions on the parking debate. And I’ve blogged about multiple times in the past—not yet ad nauseam (at least by my own standards), but let this be a warning: the topic provides such fertile ground for discussion that I have stashed away many other musings for well into the future.
During a recent visit to the picturesque town of Lewisburg, in southern West Virginia, I was taken by a sign that announced a collaboration which is disarmingly rare.
The local United Methodist church shares its parking lot with the City. It’s not large, as the photos below indicate:
But it remains the largest surface lot in this community of 3,600, and the partnership is undoubtedly a boon for the local chamber of commerce. Unlike the majority of American towns of this size, Lewisburg has discovered a means of reawakening its aging main street, with a large number of commercial buildings surviving to house restaurants, galleries, and specialty grocers.
By this point, the picture-perfect, historic small-town main street—nearly always filled with eclectic shopping that is of little day-to-day use—is almost as much of a cliché as the moribund town center that has witnessed the shifting of its commercial heart, over to the big boxes stores at the automobile-oriented periphery. But the fact remains that the empty main streets outnumber the eclectic ones by at least ten to one, and Lewisburg’s civic leadership is hardly complaining that the its town attracts artists, retirees, and wealthy tourists from larger cities such as Washington DC or Charlotte, many of whom stay at the Greenbrier resort nearby. Only a few other towns in the area can claim any outside attraction whatsoever. But the rare towns like Lewisburg will actually find themselves coming up short in terms of parking, if not for some off-street provision. Where do all these visitors put their cars?
It’s not hard to build a speculative narrative on the terms of the arrangement between the City of Lewisburg and United Methodist Church. In the past twenty years or so, the main street began to reawaken, no doubt in part because of the picturesque setting, coupled with a largely intact building stock. Entrepreneurs with an artistic flair found an optimal setting to ply their trades, thanks to commercial real estate that had faltered after the nearby Interstate 64 vacuumed all the conventional businesses away from Washington Street, the principal artery, and into strip malls and big boxes, at the juncture of U.S. Highway 219 and the aforementioned interstate (where chains such as Wal-Mart, Bob Evans, and Arby’s remain today). The Greenbrier golf resort provided a reliably moneyed clientele nearby, while the New River Community College and West Virginia School of Osteopathic Medicine contributed a captive student population that added to the town’s diverse client base, with a crowd that is more likely to demand certain businesses remaining open in the late evenings, after classes have ended. But Lewisburg’s success as a tourist center faced a growing threat through the scarcity of parking during the seasons when the town was most popular. Clearly no mass transit is likely to serve this rural area any time soon, so what could the town do? It would have been imprudent to sacrifice any more buildings in the National Register Historic District to transform into parking lots, and the most obvious space where traditional architecture had clearly already met its demise—in the photo below—seemed far more aesthetically lucrative as a pocket park than a parking lot.
(In a town such as Lewisburg, aesthetics could trump an obvious source of revenue like an off-street parking facility, because the character and physical appearance matter just as much.)
The solution? Lewisburg United Methodist came calling, and the City and Church forged an agreement. As I’ve mentioned before, churches are often an unfavored presence in a retail environment, not because they make bad neighbors, but because they keep odd hours: they generally fail to draw any patronage during the weekday 8 to 5 time frame that other businesses remain open. But this makes it even more perfect for the church to lease its parking lot to the City, because the parking needs of the congregation and visitors to the town rarely will rarely impinge upon one another. The relationship could hardly be more symbiotic: mainline Protestant churches such as United Methodist are often facing declining membership and could use the cash, and the agreement prevents the city from seeking costlier parking solutions through a purely private provider. It’s hard to charge for public parking in a town the size of Lewisburg in rural West Virginia; the goal of the City is not revenue through parking, but sustained tourism by letting the visitors get out of their cars.
Lewisburg United Method Church’s presence in the town has proven serendipitous. This parking agreement between the two entities should in no way violate the Establishment Clause since it has nothing to do with the exercise of religious faith; a church-state separation controversy would barely register on anyone’s radar. Such a solution may fall exclusively in the domain of small towns, since many urban churches in large cities lack parking lots altogether and parking demand is but one of many barriers to downtown desirability. But in niche markets such as this, the public/non-profit partnership offers humble means of addressing a problem that could help prolong the prosperity of both Lewisburg and its coterie of Methodists for many years to come.