I strongly believe that Kingston desperately needs a multi-use facility - but not necessarily the one proposed for Block D by Kingston 2000 Developments Ltd. I also believe there are several issues far more important than parking that need to be addressed - but, judging by the recent city council meeting at which the development proposal was examined, parking seems to be a dominant concern. As such, let me address this issue as one who, because he lives outside of the Sydenham ward area, has no vested interest.
As a marketing professor and consultant whose clients include companies like Starbucks, Microsoft and 3M, I spend my professional life dedicated to understanding people in the act of buying. With that background, I found myself cringing at some of the incredible assumptions being made at council about people's shopping behaviour, in order to support the Kingston 2000 project as drafted.
First, you cannot force customers to do the unnatural. The concept that off-site parking will force consumers into acts of shopping is one such unnatural act. (I would be happy to provide examples of failed attempts to do this). Yes, you can bring a horse to water, but you cannot force the horse to drink. The reality is that people will park as close as possible to their final destination - whether that suits commercial interests or not.
One need only do what city CAO Bert Meunier suggests in order to see what that means for Kingston. Draw a circle around Block D the size of - let's be generous - the parking lot of the Corel Centre or Cataraqui Town Centre. The argument is that if people will go to malls and walk that far, then the same should apply here. Because of the location of Block D relative to downtown stores and on the waterfront, less than a third of that circle is occupied by stores. In short, most of the much-anticipated traffic will never see a store, let alone visit one.
Second, studies of Kingston consumers have shown that, logical or not, they do not think about parking and convenience in terms of actual proximity. We have several parking areas downtown that fall within true geographic proximity but, because people expect to park next to their destination, consumers still see downtown parking as inadequate. Is this logical? It doesn't matter. In the final analysis that's how people are. Want to change that? Add an enormous advertising budget to the project's cost to educate people.
Third, even if we assume that off-site parking creates traffic and we further assume that people will stop and shop, they cannot buy if the stores aren't open. Take a walk through the downtown area after 5 p.m., especially those areas closest to Block D. How many stores are open even on Thursday or Friday evening? Now, combine that with the reality that the events people will be attending are often held midweek or on weekend evenings and there is a clear disconnect. If downtown merchants are asking residents to accept change, then I think they need to present a more comprehensive plan of how they will adjust to ensure that the change is beneficial.
We do need a traffic-building attraction somewhere in Kingston. Indeed, I have no trouble with locating a high-traffic attraction on Block D. While I recognize this would be uncomfortable for some, I still believe it can be for the good of the Kingston area and that appropriate accommodations can be made. But let's be certain that when we ask residents to make a sacrifice, it is for a good reason and not some pie-in-the-sky wish that people's behaviour can be manipulated. Traffic doesn't have to be a bad thing, but you cannot automatically assume it is a good thing either.
- Ken Wong teaches in the School of Business at Queen's University.