One might ask why a mundane issue such as parking warrants examination. Yet parking in cities across the United States was a highly contentious issue following World War II. The rapid rise of the automobile jammed downtown streets with traffic. Motorists griped about a lack of parking near work and retail districts. At the same time, retailers and city officials were witnessing a decline in central business district activity as residents and retailers moved to new suburban locations. The urban historian Jon Teaford notes:
Even though the number of parking lots was increasing, parking remained one of the most serious downtown problems, and many urban leaders believed that lack of adequate space for automobiles was a prime source of the perceived decline of the central business district.
Like other cities, Kalamazoo’s city officials and business leaders sought to restructure downtown to greater resemble the increasingly successful suburban retail districts of Portage and Oshtemo which offered an expanse of storefront parking.
With Kalamazoo County already home to nearly 6,000 automobile owners by 1918, it was apparent to city officials, planners, and retailers that the automobile was quickly becoming a practical form of transportation for local residents. The earliest retail parking lot in downtown Kalamazoo replaced the downtown farmer’s market known as Peyton Ranney’s Farmers Sheds. Located on Farmer’s Alley and South Street, the open-air market was purchased by Gilmore Brothers Department Store and converted to parking in 1925. Recognizing the rising importance of car lots, other businesses with available land were quickly converting it to parking.
Motorists grew in number, and concern was raised by planners and city officials regarding “the problem of parking for shoppers and… the general trend toward decentralization of shopping districts,” noted the Kalamazoo Gazette in 1945. Observing that nearby metropolises such as Chicago and Detroit were losing shoppers to suburban locations, Kalamazoo officials sought to fight retail decentralization by clearing land for downtown parking. According to one newspaper account, in 1939 an advisory parking board made up of five downtown businessmen was established to “aid the city in the management of the new Shoppers’ Parking Lot, which will be the city’s first venture into municipal parking.” The lot, located on the corner of Water Street and Kalamazoo Avenue, would be the first of a multitude of properties purchased by the city for future parking lots.
Though hailed by national publications such as the Christian Science Monitor and the Rotarian, the “Shoppers’ Lot” was already struggling to meet the needs of an increasing number of automobile owners. Between 1947 and 1950, the number of automobiles registered in Kalamazoo County increased by nearly one-third. At the same time, use of public transportation was decreasing steadily. By the mid-1950s downtown merchants were reporting to the Kalamazoo Chamber of Commerce that Christmas shoppers were unable to park in close proximity to stores.
Local business leaders and city officials looked to larger cities such as Chicago and New York which had faced parking shortages since the first quarter of the twentieth-century and had responded with multi-story parking structures. Rather than demolish more downtown buildings, Kalamazoo’s planners considered their existing parking lots an ideal location for the construction of decked parking garages. In 1956, Gilmore Brothers Department store financed and constructed Kalamazoo’s first multi-level parking lot on the site of their existing lot. Located at the corner of Water Street and Rose Street, the city’s second parking ramp opened in 1971. In the following two decades new parking ramps would be constructed on Church Street, South Street, and Farmer’s Alley.
By the late 1950s, though parking had expanded greatly, retail growth remained stagnant and concerns over a weakening downtown economy persisted. In 1958 Kalamazoo businessmen sought solutions from the prominent city planning firm Victor Gruen Associates. The firm’s plan, proposed a variety of changes to downtown infrastructure, but paramount among them was parking. Kalamazoo officials were committed to following the suggestion of Victor Gruen and Associates to—at least partially—ring the central city with parking lots. Already by 1959, a Kalamazoo Gazette article titled “The Changing Face of Downtown Kalamazoo” noted the addition of six new parking lots to the Central Business District. According to a 1962 Kalamazoo Gazette report:
The theory has been to ring the central downtown area with off-street parking lots. Buildings have gone down and been replaced with metered and attendant parking.
Nationally, newly constructed parking facilities created highly visible changes to the urban landscape. Like road widening projects and interstate business loops, increasing parking to suit the rising number of automobile owners required the removal of a multitude of buildings. The contiguous blocks of storefronts and commercial firms that characterized central business districts throughout the U.S. were increasingly interrupted by parking lots. In Kalamazoo a multitude of historic structures were razed as early as the mid-1930s:
“The steady creep of another century—featuring a generation on wheels—has virtually erased the landmarks of the earliest Kalamazoo. Buildings of the 40’s and 50’s are few, and growing fewer. Now the Motor Era has begun to eradicate evidence of Kalamazoo as it was in the 60’s and 70’s.”
Between 1930 and the mid-1960s the homes of prominent Kalamazoo pioneers such as S.S. Cobb, Harris B. Osborne, W.E. Shackleton, and Hiram Underwood were removed to make way for parking lots. Industrial and commercial buildings including the Henderson-Ames Building, the Armory, American Playing Card Company, the Midway Hotel, and the Williams Manufacturing Company were similarly replaced by parking lots. The loss of these landmarks evoked winsome remarks in the Kalamazoo Gazette, but it was made clear that they stood in the way of “progress.”
The growing number of parking spaces did not stem the flight of retail outlets to surrounding suburbs. The W.T. Grant Company relocated in 1968, J.C. Penny’s and Sears in 1980. By the 1990s every national department store had closed its downtown Kalamazoo location. Still, parking has retained importance during discussion of more recent downtown revitalization projects such as the Arcadia Festival Site and the Rave Motion Picture Theatre.
The Rough Road to Renaissance: Urban Revitalization in America, 1940-1985
- Teaford, Jon C.
- The Johns Hopkins Univeristy Press
Local History Room Files
Subject File: City Planning-Kalamazoo
Subject File: Historic Sites
Subject File: Parking
Subject File: Transportation