Less is more is a famous quote from Architect Mies van der Rohe, and that certainly can apply to the recent talk about a parking problem in the downtown section of Bluffton. I understand that the intent is to begin to require more parking for new development in the old part of Bluffton. This is the completely wrong approach to the problem.
For those that don't know, Bluffton was a very small (one mile square) town from the early 1800’s until the early 1990’s. This is the wonderful area now know as Old Town. From the 1990’s until today, Bluffton has exploded annexing everything near by and it is now the 5th largest municipality (by land area) in the state of South Carolina. All that land went into new suburban style development, cul-de-sacs of homes, office parks and strip retail centers all of which where separated from each other. That means you have to drive everywhere. The population grew the fastest in the state at the last census and now has close to 15,000 residences, 97% of whom have to drive several miles to get a gallon of milk or dinner.
The other part of the story is that the Town made the Old Town area a historic district. Then they brought in the talented team of Dover Kohl and Partners to develop a great master plan and code for the Old Town and areas next to it. The result has been outstanding with lots of new development with well designed streets, sidewalks and urbanism. The real estate market responded well and the new area is a popular destination for a day or night out. There are great restaurants, shops and places to sit outside not looking at a parking lot. In short, Old
Bluffton became a great place that people really wanted to be at, thus a parking problem because more people are coming to it than it is designed for.
The reason people responded to it is because it was designed that way. The streets and parking are designed according to certain standards that help make you feel comfortable walking. These rules also work with having the buildings along the sidewalk edge that enclose the streets. The ratio of parking to building area is by design and is one of the primary tools which creates the feeling of being in a great place. When you break those design rules, you break the place-making power of design. Contrast how it feels standing on the corner of Calhoun St. vs. standing outside of Target.
If you require more parking then you will end up with suburban style development and you will loose the thing that made Old Bluffton feel and work great. You can’t have it both ways, thus the less is more quote. Less parking equals more place-making. People like places and thus its crowded now in Old Bluffton. It is crowded because it is a successful place AND that there is nothing else the whole 5th largest city in South Carolina that has any sense of place. Everything new the new 15,000 residents are living in is typical suburban stuff that could be anywhere. It is placeless. People are voting with their wallets. That doesn't mean that you cant have a good restaurant in a strip center, there are several that are great, but when I go there I leave. There is no where to walk to and no place to sit afterward nor is there anywhere to hear live music after dinner with out driving.
So instead of breaking the one single place that is working as intended and very popular, what should the Town do? How about build more places just like Old Town. It is what people want. How about if there where two or three other areas similar in walkability and urban fabric to Old Town. Then those 15,000 people would have choices as to where they wanted to go be in a real place. Now they have only one choice, Old Town, and they have to drive to get there.
What if the Buckwalter area was a Urban Downtown with a civic park and was connected to the adjacent residential areas so you could walk there or ride a bike/golf cart? How about an another Village center further east along the Parkway that you could watch a live band in a park after shopping with your kids, while not getting back into your car.
Bluffton doesn't have a parking problem. Its has a lack of place problem. Undoing the things that made your ONLY place is truly a wrong move. The visionary future would be to build more real places and not just be a totally suburban community. You can see some images of design work we did as a study for doing just such a thing. It is possible but you have to have the right leadership to do it and you have to understand the reality of why these places are the way they are, not knee jerk reactions.