The Cost of Foregone Biergartens

I live in a great neighborhood. I bike to work in less than fifteen minutes. From my relatively quiet and tree-filled, winding road, there is a pub, a grocery store, a wonderful coffee shop, and, soon, a bakery within ten minutes’ walk. And yet, this little collection of shops called Five Points could be much, much better. The chief problem is a mutually destructive, suburban-style attitude toward parking. Among the costs of this tragedy of the anti-commons is the thus far foregone opportunity to establish the greatest biergarten in … well, at least in the county.

Things are changing, but too many places, even hippy-friendly Athens, Georgia, still design our world for our cars. Neighborhoods that are snakes of streets and cul-de-sacs sprinkled with housing, warehouses — with just enough paint to be passed off as retail stores — dwarfed despite their size by asphalt fields given over to the automobile, the strip mall the very soul of which is defined by the iron horses that wait patiently outside. I pretty much actively dislike the auto-sprawl style of development, but I’m not concerned here with adding my voice to the anti-car chorus.

Cars are often useful and sometimes essential, even in semi-urban places like parts of Athens. The problem in Five Points is not so much cars themselves and not even parking as such. Rather, it’s the failure of the private market in parking that has locked the neighborhood in a senseless state of restrictions destructive of its potential and antithetical to its basic character.

I’ll write now specifically about Five Points, but this very casual case study quite obviously bears similarities to many other places. Each business in Five Points owns its own parking spaces and prohibits their use by patrons of other businesses. Some proprietors more aggressively police their lots than others. And some, like Earth Fare (our local grocery store) have a greater need to reserve for customer use the closest places to park.

There used to be a row of public parking in front of an apartment building with ground-level retail. But the proprietor has engaged in lengthy and wasteful litigation and so far “won” the right to privatize these spaces. He is the most active enforcer of his parking, charging money to park unless one is visiting one of the few stores that still remain in his building. While he has unwisely made himself the subject of active dislike by many locals, I don’t blame him for fighting for spaces in a neighborhood in which all the other businesses have exclusive parking. Not smart business, but understandable.

What we have is a tragedy of the anti-commons, a situation in which excessive private ownership actually makes everyone, including the property owners themselves worse off. If parking were shared among businesses, open to all but perhaps metered or otherwised priced to reduce demand, then the spaces could be used more beneficially. One could park in Five Points, grab a pint at the pub, walk for yoghurt, pick up some coffee beans, and get a few groceries. Students at the yoga studio could get coffee afterwards or purchase food for dinner. Parking is now a feature of every business, taking up space that could be used by people, uglifying the streetscape, and constraining people to moving between businesses only by moving several tons of machinery is hurting everyone. Yet no rational business can open its parking to everyone. If we can solve this problem, then we might begin to see all the possibilities for the neighborhood that have been obscured by our assumption that every single shop needs an asphalt lot.

Consolidated, shared parking could reduce the number of curb cuts, the breaks in the sidewalk through which cars enter private parking areas, each one of which marginally reduces walkability and creates an opportunity to worry about young kids on bikes. Utilization would improve. Late night businesses with empty lots in the morning and daytime businesses with empty lots at night would all benefit from a shared set of spaces that could even be reduced in aggregate number. (Is there anything more wasteful in a neighborhood than empty space covered in asphalt but usable by no one?)

People often bring up the possibility of a parking deck. Perhaps, but just by sharing parking, better using the capacity we have, we would increase parking opportunities. And we could probably get rid of the tiny lots that front the street. I had an excellent student a few years ago in land use who wrote a paper about how and why to implement shared parking in Five Points.

Before mentioning an example of the many great opportunities we could realize by devoting neighborhood land to people rather than cars, I’ll just mention that I’m also in favor of making it easier and more obviously a “way to do things” not to park a car at all. Just by moving parking from positions of prominence in front of businesses, the place will look like a place that’s more fun to walk around in. There are hundreds of homes, apartment units, fraternities, and sororities in the surrounding neighborhood within trivial walking distance of Five Points. If you ride a bike, it’s accessible to almost everyone in the area.

Secondly, and to describe this properly requires a separate post, a bus system could actually work. I have a hypothesis that bus systems are underused in part because of frequency concerns but also because of the complexity of the routes. Suffice it to say for now, I think a frequent trolley-style bus that goes along a single street (for you locals: one each for Lumpkin, Milledge, and Prince) would make it psychologically convenient to get to Five Points and downtown without a car. If you have to decipher a serpentine bus route and timetable and think hard about when to pull the stop chord, they’re doing it wrong.

But finally, I’d like to mention a concrete benefit to Five Points of solving this tragedy of the anti-commons. Between a street-fronting restaurant, a set-back bottle shop and beer growler dispensary, and a street-fronting pub is a parking lot. It need not exist. Imagine instead a beer garden, strung with lights, a fountain in the center, tables and umbrellas. From time to time, there could be live music, for which Athens is well-known, open mic, wine tastings, kids’ puppet shows, and who knows what else. Such shared but commercial space could draw Athenians from all over. It would be an expression of what everyone already loves about where we live.

The open-ended nature of what could occur there slaps us in the face and reminds us that land is a platform for cultural expression. We plan best when we plan not for what exactly humans will do but for the full unleashing of their ever-changing talents and ideas. To make a parking lot into a biergarten is unquestionably awesome.

An anti-commons like Five Points is frustrating in the same way as is the clinging pathologies of humans as individuals. That lingering fear of letting go and seeing the world as it really is prevents us from being our best selves. To see the collective version of that error, itself the product of the clashing weaknesses of the individuals who compose the community, is to understand what is so tragic about the blindered refusal to look past apparent self-interest and so to miss opportunities that even the selfish person would be a fool to pass up.