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Downtown Food Co-op Needs a Lorax — NOW!

January 2015

Dr. Suess in B'ham

Downtown Food Co-op Needs a Lorax — NOW!

by Preston Schiller

Preston Schiller is the principal author of “An Introduction to Sustainable Transportation: Policy, Planning and Implementation,” 2010, Earthscan.

With Apologies to Dr. Seuss:

“… But I had to grow bigger,

so bigger I got.

I biggered my already big parking lot.

I cut down the trees and tore down a house.

To make more space for Thneeds

— which every car needs.”

The Community Food Co-op downtown store is one of the great benefits of life in Bellingham. It provides a magnificent array of fresh organic vegetables — many locally grown, a fine selection of bulk products, delicious deli fare, and numerous difficult-to-find items. Staff is friendly, helpful and knowledgable. Co-op stances on a variety of environmental issues reflect its members’ generally progressive orientation. That is the happy situation inside the store.

Outside is more problematic. The speed bump that used to slow cars at the main pedestrian access has been removed. The only good covered, observable and lighted bicycle parking near the entry is replaced by manure bags for half the year. The poorly lighted insecure bicycle parking off to a far side of the lot is not used by much of anyone — not even staff. Prime Forest Street curb space is given to ATM temporary parking while a bus stop is kept unnecessarily distant from the entry — and shelteress.

I shop at the co-op frequently, almost always via bicycle or bus. I was alarmed last fall when I heard rumors that the community education building at Chestnut and Forest would be demolished to make room for—guess what? A community garden? More trees? Affordable housing? NO! Rumor had it that a perfectly useful building would be demolished to add a few more parking spaces.

The truth was worse than the rumor. Not only would the community building be demolished for parking lot expansion, the steep well-treed slope at the lot’s east side would also be bulldozed to add a total of twenty or so additional parking spaces. The slope’s trees include an old, scarce and very slow growing Pacific Yew; the tree whose bark led to the cancer-curing taxol now synthesized by Big Pharma. But why kill any trees in a fairly barren downtown? Why enlarge an already ugly asphalt slab? Most of the time, day or evening, the “Thneedy” motorist could find a spot. The lot was occasionally crowded but there were almost always options available close by. On rare occasion a shopper might have to feed a quarter or two into a meter — horrors!

And then there’s the price tag. Given the challenges of removing a steep slope in a seismically sensitive zone, constructing safe retaining walls, spreading loads of asphalt in a stormwater-challenged city, and navigating the treacherous permitting process could easily add up to a million dollars — perhaps more. $50,000 per added parking space — not counting the maintenance costs and the opportunity costs of losing an income- generating building. Please remind me; for what?

Quicker than a Truffula tree can be turned into Thneeds I wrote a letter to the co-op, with suggestions about managing existing parking better. I raised the issue at the annual members’ dinner — which prompted much spirited discussion and led to several good ideas from those present. Most attendees agreed that there should be a special meeting about the lot before the ‘dozers were let loose. However, the co-op’s website still does not reflect the concerns raised at the dinner. The December newsletter did make mention of the parking lot issue but in an incomplete and elliptical way.

Jim Ashby, the congenial and highly competent co-op manager is hardly the Once-ler type. He has been very responsive to the questions and issues I have posed to him. Perhaps because he hears more from a few impatient motorists than from walk-ins and bike-ins he feels a “biggering” of the lot is a necessity, as his (excerpted) Dec. 14, 2014 e-mail indicates:

“… We start with the assumption that a large proportion of our shoppers are making conscious, values-driven transportation choices when they choose to drive to our store. In our view the expansion we’re contemplating will simply bring our lot into line with the number of spaces we need to accommodate those choices. … I’m sure that more of our shoppers use alternative forms of transport now than is normal for a grocery store our size. I’m also sure that an informational campaign could increase that number. But I am skeptical that it would change enough peoples’ behavior to make our current parking lot adequate. …”

Could not some of those young healthy one or two item motoring shoppers from nearby streets be persuaded to walk or bicycle? Could not a few shoppers be coaxed to try the bus that is becoming more frequent and convenient? Could not a few motoring customers be encouraged to change their shopping schedule? Everything I’ve learned, studied or been involved with as a sustainable transportation activist, planner, researcher and academic over some thirty years informs me that transportation behavior is malleable and elastic and that parking issues respond well to better management and user education. There are a number of possible measures which could form a co-op parking strategy and help its members choose “organic transportation:”

• Educate motoring customers about alternatives available to them — and that these are part of sustainability: A local study found that many Bellinghamites were willing to use an alternative to the car for some trips after simply receiving good information. The co-op has thousands of members in its database; it could easily target informational outreach. Many downtown coop drivers appear to be from nearby neighborhoods buying relatively small quantities per trip. Driving is somewhat understandable for those making large infrequent purchases, although their trip scheduling could be better informed.

• Encourage drivers to shop at times when there is less parking demand. An online video camera of the lot continually on the co-op website could could inform them about availability.

• Manage parking better to assure turnover and appropriate use. A little staff monitoring combined with tasks (such as retrieving carts, etc) could go a long way to discourage non-shoppers from using the lot — and help security. Just the planned moving of the current classroom building activities to the new Holly St. facility, and smartly replacing those activities with ones that do not have much parking demand will create more space in the existing lot.

• Charge for parking — at least at periods of peak demand. Mountain Equipment Co-op (MEC) in Vancouver, BC, charges for parking. It retains plenty of customers, including David Suzuki.

• Offer a delivery service: Many forward-looking groceries are beginning to offer these for persons who either cannot easily get to the store or who can get to the store by walking, cycling or the bus, but need help getting their groceries back to their homes. Invite former Huxley College student Ryan Hashagen, who has become the Northwest’s “Cargo Bike go-to-guy” to meet with you about a bicycle delivery service. Based in Portland, Ryan and friends construct cargo bicycles, pedi-cabs, etc, and plan services that use these.

• Welcome pedestrians, bus riders and cyclists better; separate car access from pedestrian and cycling access. Provide covered bicycle parking immediately adjacent to the store. Ask WTA to move the bus stop right up to the store and provide a shelter.

Many more good ideas, and even some behavior change, could flow from a sincere openminded outreach effort around this issue as these two notable ideas from the members’ dinner indicate.

• Encourage members to form shopping carpools.

• Have a grocery pick-up area, perhaps with a conveyor chute, where persons can drive up and get their large orders loaded. This might help encourage a little more use of street parking.

The core of sustainability is to grow smarter, but not at the expense of the environment. Biggering roads and parking lots is dumb growth, unsustainable and very expensive. Concerned members and the public should make their views known to the co-op. Oh, by the way, the co-op is looking for persons to stand for its board. Applications are due Jan. 19, 2015; see its website for more details.

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