The Secret to Good Main Streets – On-Street Parking

Take one look at this photo and tell me why the businesses along this roadway struggle. This is Wautoma, Wisconsin, a town of just over 2,000 in east Central Wisconsin, deep in the heart of Packer-land. Wautoma is nice, with some lakes and recreation nearby, and the Moose Inn (Friday fish fry!) located just east of town. However, like many small towns near resorts and cabins, I never actually see the downtown area because groceries and gas are located out on the stroad at the edge of town. I was looking forward to seeing Main Street, and I immediately identified the problem – on-street parking is forbidden.

My family spent this past weekend at a relative’s cottage nearby, and since it was too cold to swim, we went in to Wautoma in search of the candy store and video game arcade my wife and kids visited during a visit last October. I wasn’t too familiar with Main Street in Wautoma (but very familiar with the grocery store along the stroad on the east end of town), and as I approached our destination, I was expecting to simply park on the street. I was surprised to find that on-street parking wasn’t allowed. As you can see in the linked image, the street is four lanes wide, and I suspect the fact that parts of three state highways (21, 22 and 73) traverse Main Street are the reason on-street parking is forbidden. I had to park in off-street lot beside the building.

Located in the old movie theater on Main Street that had been converted in to small commercial spaces, the video arcade is gone but the candy store remains. There aren’t a lot of other destinations along the two-block core of the original downtown, and candy stores and arcades, when they do exist, don’t pay high rent. But there certainly is potential in the older handsome commercial buildings. But I can understand why businesses struggle – driving in to downtown my intuition told me there isn’t much going on here and the road told me to keep driving and not slow down. The city made the mistake of building a library along this stretch (at right of image in link), but they forgot to add windows, so there is a big mural facing Main Street but no life. Look closely at the image and you can see decorative lampposts, which this time of year have scarecrows, a hollow attempt at creating street life, despite the potential for those storefronts.

What is just so sad is how the roadway is preventing the downtown from its potential. I don’t know the exact story in Wautoma, but I suspect it is a similar relationship between the state DOT and local officials. Why do you need four lanes of through traffic in a downtown of 2,000 people? But for all I know local leaders don’t want to risk traffic congestion, either. But simply allowing parking would do so much more than scarecrows can. Nearby Berlin, for example, allows on-street parking and has a relatively thriving (and quite beautiful) downtown.

I’d like to think WisDOT and the City of Wautoma could immediately agree to take down those no parking signs, maybe replacing them with 2 Hour parking or something appropriate (but I know it isn’t that simple). That alone could do so much by providing convenient parking options and a buffer to make pedestrians (and scarecrows) feel more comfortable, not to mention slowing traffic. The cost is minimal and the potential upside is significant. Worry about expenses like curb bumpouts, street trees and code revisions later, but in the meantime try to attract some businesses and events downtown by simply allowing on-street parking.

This was cross-posted at Joe Urban.

Sam Newberg

About Sam Newberg

Sam Newberg, a.k.a. Joe Urban, is an urbanist, real estate consultant and writer. He lives in Minneapolis with his wife and two kids, and his website is

7 thoughts on “The Secret to Good Main Streets – On-Street Parking

  1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

    I agree, Sam; this street would benefit from on-street parking. In fact, it looks oddly naked without it. The outside travel lanes are very wide, so with parked cars, the outer lane can also function as a de facto bike lane (like on Marquette and 2nd off-peak downtown).

    The traffic count is 13000-17000 ADT, so it’s not crazy that it would be four lanes, but also not essential. Perhaps that traffic is heavily concentrated at peak hour, but even then, why not allow off-peak parking (as on Cedar, Franklin, or other busy county roads in Minneapolis)?

    Alternatively, I could also see a restriping approach that puts left-turn lanes at intersections, with no parking approaching intersections, but parking allowed mid-block (as was done on Lyndale).

  2. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

    If you’re interested in a more local battle for on-street parking, I will offer a shameless plug for 66th Street. While City and County officials readily acknowledge the need for better bike and pedestrian facilities for the 2016 reconstruction, they’ve been pretty reluctant thus far to consider parking seriously.

    Unfortunately, the lack of on-street parking has had some deleterious effects on redevelopment. At 12th Ave, a brand-new building is going up with a parking lot in front — despite zoning and corridor plans that call for sidewalk-fronting businesses. Nearby at Cedar Point Commons, buildings are adjacent to the sidewalk, but face away from it, inside toward the parking lot. The public realm is instead made up of fire exit doors and gas meters.

    A handful of building projects have done excellent sidewalk frontage (like Woodlake Center and City Bella at Lyndale). But those businesses suffer because of the inconvenience of having to do ramp parking for even very brief visits.

  3. Danielle

    How about walkability and cycling infrastructure? Yes, parking should be appropriately provided for, but allowing people to visit Main Street by foot or bike is key as well.

  4. Minnesota Prairie Roots

    When reading the header on this piece, I thought, I’ve just driven through a community like this with no Main Street parking. And then I see it’s Wautoma, exactly the town I’d been through two weeks ago and numerous times in the past three years en route to Appleton.

    I’ve thought the same thing. Why is there no on-street parking? How does this impact businesses? What first impression does this give to travelers/visitors? I can assure you that the no parking along the main drag does not present a good image. The downtown feels/looks abandoned.

    Now if you’ve thought this and I’ve thought this about Wautoma, how many others have thought the same and never once stopped to explore? My husband and I stopped once in the heart of downtown Wautoma, at the old movie theatre you reference and at the hardware store.

    But we’ve certainly hit the long-standing Milty Wilty drive-in (now closed for the season) on the edge of town.

  5. Jeremy MendelsonJeremy Mendelson

    It doesn’t have anything to do with parking. This place lacks the feel of a vibrant downtown because the street is essentially a highway and is not comfortable to walk around. You’re thinking of parking because it creates a buffer space and slows traffic, but it’s those effects you’re looking for, not the parking itself. I’m sure the businesses have plenty of parking in back.

    What is needed on any street are low-stress spaces where people can sit, stroll, shop and socialize. That’s what draws people and entices them to hang out.

    Priority number one in this example is traffic calming. Throw down some paint for a road diet to remove two of four lanes. Use some bollards to widen the pedestrian space and add benches, tables and other amenities. Start a business association to help invest in and care for pleasant public spaces where people want to be.

    1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

      I don’t think it has nothing to do with parking. Although there are streets that are quite vibrant without any parking (like Hennepin downtown), it can be an excellent fix for an otherwise unpleasant street. Look at Lagoon Ave — it has about 5′ sidewalks, immediately next to the curb. If there were travel lanes with no buffer next to the sidewalk, it would be unwalkable. Instead — while not being a pedestrian paradise — it’s quite viable next to parked cars.

      Likewise, consider Nicollet Ave just north and south of Crosstown. It’s exactly the same street in Minneapolis (south of Minnehaha) and Richfield — a disheveled 44′ roadway, and 6-7′ sidewalks immediately behind the curb. But in Richfield, the outer lanes are travel lanes, and in Minneapolis, they’re parking lanes. The pedestrian experience is night-and-day different.

      In this Wisconsin downtown, surely the best option for pedestrians would be wider, engaging sidewalks, but in lieu of that, adding on-street parking significantly improves the pedestrian experience. (And provides motorists much better access to local business.)

      1. Sam NewbergSam Newberg (Joe Urban)

        Yes, Sean, I agree with your response. It actually has a lot to do with parking. By not allowing parking in the first place there is no incentive to stop and actually check out what’s going on. And no, there isn’t necessarily parking behind or otherwise conveniently nearby – I bet on-street parking would help businesses and provide a pedestrian barrier. But Jeremy notes, a business association would be a great idea and could help a lot with a budget for advertising and events, as would physical improvements like bollards, benches, trees, etc., but political support for those expenses could begin with a very inexpensive change to allow on-street parking.

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