More parking lots won't enhance Cape's downtown

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Southeast Missouri State University has given the impression that parking lots with some green space weaved within make it acceptable to demolish Cape Girardeau's existing building stock -- forever changing the historic character of Broadway and Pacific Street. In truth, the university is taking down a piece of the architectural history and a piece of the cultural fabric of our community, replacing it with a vast cavity.

While the university might view the demolition of old buildings as progress, true progress would be using existing buildings. The university believes the key to its parking problem is to create more parking by razing buildings. However, for those of us who understand how downtowns function and how downtowns become successful, we know this is not the solution. This is the problem. If the university had done its research, those involved would have learned why historic downtowns don't always need more parking. In fact, parking lots can thwart economic success.

Parking lots with nice, creative landscaping don't create tax revenue for the city, but an existing building with a retail shop within does. Those people who shop downtown buy the goods and services offered within the historic buildings, generating sales tax revenue and providing a livelihood to merchants and property owners. Automobiles parked in a parking lot with some shrubs planted here and there don't purchase anything. Those cars just sit there. That in itself is not aesthetically pleasing. A strong, vital downtown is one with people walking, but a parking lot is an obstacle for pedestrian traffic. Parking lots do not strengthen a downtown economically. They only dwindle a town economically since there is not a building providing goods, services and tax revenue. A parking lot with its plants adds zilch to the economy.

The solution to the parking problem the university has is better management of its existing parking, not the razing of historic buildings.

Demolishing historic buildings for a paved parking lot is a bad idea also because parking lots do not create a more livable downtown. And a parking lot certainly does not impart a context for our downtown community. While some people think buildings can be eyesores, parking lots certainly fall into that category.

There is another reason why the razing of a building is a bad idea. Demolition is not green.

The use of existing buildings is one of the uppermost forms of sustainable use. What is gained in the demolition of a building? Nothing. Demolition is a waste of the building materials in existence, and of the energy used to create them. It is also a waste of the energy that must be used to raze a building, including the energy one has to use to lug away the debris.

And what is our community given in return? One more considerable plot of land covered over in concrete.

While to some people, a paved parking lot with painted lines might seem an enhancement, it certainly does not enhance the prospect for economic success, nor does it improve our quality of life. Razing of historic buildings to create "aesthetically pleasing" parking is not revitalization of Cape Girardeau's downtown.

Once the university takes down yet another historic building, that architectural history is gone forever. History provides a clear picture of the university's weakness for razing buildings. Annihilation of existing building stock seems to be a way of life to the university. Many of Cape Girardeau's historic buildings have been forever lost to our community at the hands of the university.

How many more buildings on Broadway will the university feel it has the need to decimate? As more and more buildings disappear, more of our rich history is lost eternally.

Terri L. Foley of Cape Girardeau is a historic preservation consultant.

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