It was early enough in the morning that I hadn’t showered yet when two community activists from Durham, North Carolina reached me by telephone in early 1989.
I was living in a two story apartment on one side of a 1926 duplex that rested on its own single garage and had just sat down at my desk in a bay window overlooking Divisadero Street, barely a half block off the Bay along the northern edge of San Francisco.
Parking was on my mind as I watched cars that had been using street parking being shuffled below, a behavior quantified in a new survey and report I just read.
But before I go there, first let me give a little personal history.
The callers were scouting me via telephone to find out whether I might be the right fit to jumpstart what would be in part, their community’s frontline guardian of sense of place.
As was my routine each morning during that few months of hiatus from visitor-centric economic development, part of my reflection was an early morning walk.
The route took me a half block to the Marina District Yacht Club and then west along a coastal path, which was then under discussion as part the planning for a San Francisco Bay Trail.
With the Golden Gate looming ahead I would turn back south at the Presidio, which was then still an active Fort, through the remnants of the 1915 world’s fair, the Panama-Pacific Exposition.
I always made a pit stop for breakfast at a little hole-in-the-wall diner up on Chestnut St before heading north down Divisadero back to the apartment while sometimes detouring up to Pacific Heights.
The Marina District had originally been a landfill where demolition materials were dumped among some dunes, tidal flats and marshland following the 1906 earthquake.
It was then filled in by dredging to become the site of the eight-month 1915 world’s fair to showcase the area’s dramatic recovery. It was ironic that my career in community marketing had begun 59 years later at a world’s fair to celebrate the environment.
The exposition was also where cities and states west of the Rockies first made a concerted case to be seen as destinations for tourism under the banner of “See America First.”
After the exposition, which was followed by WWI, the land was sold to developers in the 1920s. With their building, including erection of my apartment, this had become the pedestrian-scaled Marina District and a derivation from Mediterranean Revival that is “singularly San Franciscan.”
It was the perfect spot for reflection, to learn self-forgiveness and contemplate the resurrection of my career in sense of place.
I hadn’t given North Carolina or Durham much thought at that point in my life and this area didn’t warrant inspection during the journey’s published a few years earlier by William Least Moon in his book Blue Highways.
My brushes until that call had been subliminal, perhaps, but nonetheless, in hindsight, a sort of “destiny” groundwork.
What little I knew about it came from watching NC State legend David Thompson lead the Americans to a 1974 victory over the Russians in Spokane where I had begun my career in community destination marketing.
I had several friends from North Carolina during my next stop in Anchorage including Steve Cowper, a native Tar Heel who had practiced law out of his Volkswagen and was known as the “High Plains Drifter.” That was before he had become Governor of Alaska.
We had met when a mutual friend in Anchorage persuaded both of us, as a favor to her, to attend a speed-dating event. Another friend there from North Carolina, Tennys Owens, had lived in Durham while her husband Tom attended law school at Duke.
A few months before that call from Durham I had watched Bull Durham, the movie, and learned that a friend was heading up the destination marketing organization a bit further “down east” in Raleigh.
He is the one that brought my name to Durham’s attention.
But as I asked around after the phone interview, I learned that a new acquaintance, Joe Morgan, who was a friend of a friend, had played minor league baseball in Durham at the launch of his hall of fame career.
I also learned that during WWII, my landlord had undergone officers training in Durham at Duke University.
And just two days before that life-altering call from Durham, I had watched Kansas defeat Duke in the NCAA Final Four, the beginning of my being a Duke fan and a premonition, perhaps.
Durham was intriguing, and the governing board for visitor-centric economic development there decided I was too, so after finishing the last two decades of my career here, it is now my home in retirement.
My last memory of the Marina was watching images broadcast from the blimp that had been covering the World Series capture some buildings burn a block south from where I had lived on Divisadero.
The 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquate had struck there a dozen weeks after my arrival in Durham. Coincidentally, Roger Craig, a Durham native, was managing the San Francisco Giants in that game.
What does all of that have to do with parking?
The Marina District was one of a handful of San Francisco neighborhoods to participate in a multi-year pilot project for “smart parking” between 2011 and 2013.
This is a system of wireless sensors, new meters and demand-responsive pricing. Click here for a full post-pilot evaluation report.
An incredible 30% of urban traffic is caused by people circling the block searching for parking. Click here for a trends report on programs such as San Francisco’s, including surveys and case studies, which is summarized in the infographic shown as an image in this essay.
“Smart parking” reduces congestion, reduces miles driven as well as emissions, and increases parking revenue. But the real payoff is that it results in an increase of 179% in taxable retail sales.
Another in the legion or reasons that street-side and roadside billboard are so ineffective (.2% of purchasing decisions) is because travelers have dramatically shifted to GPS now, including smartphones, for directions and purchasing decisions.
They have a consumer turn-off ratio of 7-to-1 and the blight they create and the trees they sacrifice not only destroy sense of place but result in an extremely high cost-to-benefit ratio.
Signaling that companies who own or sell space on billboards should shift to other out-of-home alternatives or some other line of business entirely is that 95% of a car’s life is spent sitting in a garage, parking lot or parked on the street.
Urban planners have no idea how many parking spaces their communities have and continue to use ratios for developers that result in far too many.
As a by-product of smart parking that data is collected and parking space utilization not only maximized but impervious surface minimized.
It is a transformation that Durham transportation officials have been watching closely while experimenting with parking policies that may tip the balance against sense of place in one of Durham’s organic districts.
One thing I learned during my now concluded career is that a community can preserve sense of place but it is created organically. However, forces there including public policy can destroy it.
“Smart parking” while dramatically reducing parking requirements may also end up helping to preserve districts where sense of place has emerged as if by magic.