Parking in Plain Sight
You’re on the way to Cape May. Whether that’s an exciting drive from home to a beach retreat, or a reluctant trip into town to work a double shift, crossing the bridge into the Marina District is just a checkpoint. Once past the Lobster House, a stream of cars can move at a snail’s pace, as hundreds funnel down a single lane on Lafayette into the heart of the city. With so many cars and such little space, many drivers lament in solidarity: “Where the hell am I going to park?”
As we navigate town during peak season, the influx of summer residents and vacationers in full effect, we are forced to come to terms with a persistent planning issue: Cape May’s parking shortage. The city’s lack of adequate, centrally located parking facilities is apparent and unrelenting. While this scarcity can be observed during the offseason, it is undoubtedly the most inconvenient and troublesome between Memorial Day and Labor Day. It’s an ongoing problem for which the solution seems to be consistently debated.
Can we creatively fit more spaces where surface parking already exists? Can we build a structure several stories high, to stack cars vertically? Should we shuttle visitors on and off the island, to and from a satellite location? All those options are considered in the 2019 Cape May City Master Plan Reexamination. However, each of those potential solutions faces its own unique challenges. Reconfiguring existing lots may yield some additional spaces, but certainly not a number that makes a meaningful impact. A parking deck would likely accommodate many vehicles, but there does not seem to be an obvious location for it. City-owned properties that could contain such a building are few and far between. Only a few privately owned sites might be sufficient. With that said, the circulation in and out of a parking structure could result in an even greater headache.
While vehicular congestion is the worst within the downtown area due to the tight circulation routes, traffic is impacted throughout Cape May due to the small number of satisfactory parking facilities. Without accounting for every metered parking space on the streets across town, we can identify the major areas of concentrated public metered parking.
The most obvious is the Jackson Street lot next to Collier’s Liquor Store, with 107 spaces, including four accessible spaces. Nearby, on the northwest side of the Washington Street Mall, Mansion Street and Lyle Lane accommodate 64 cars, including four accessible spaces, and two dedicated to low-speed vehicles, or golf carts. Opposite, on the southeast side of the mall, Carpenters Lane fits 97 cars, including six accessible spaces. The 24 new spaces created at the Welcome Center are the most in decades and include two accessible spaces. Adjacent to the Welcome Center, the Broad Street Lot fits 26 cars, with two spaces accessible.
These areas provide a total of 318 metered parking spaces. With an additional 80 spaces being planned for the proposed Lafayette Street Park at the former site of Vance’s Bar, it is possible that the capacity of the city’s public surface parking lots will increase to hold around 400 cars in metered spaces.
Separately, the city contains a few other parking areas that can accommodate larger numbers of cars, though it should be noted that these are either semi-public or privately owned facilities. First, the shared lot at the Acme and Washington Commons boasts the greatest number of parking spaces in one location, with 190. This lot is privately owned, offers the first 30 minutes for free, but otherwise costs $6.00 per hour ($2.00 being the going rate on the street) and closes at 11:00pm. The city-owned Bank Street Lot holds 125 cars. That number is based on the configuration of parking blocks, some haphazardly situated, and could probably be increased. This lot is considered semi-public, as it allows permitted parking only, with a cost of $350 per space (from 2022).
Similarly, the Cape May Elementary School Lot, another semi-public facility, offers 62 spaces, including six accessible stalls. According to the city website, free parking is available at the school “Saturday and Sunday while school is in session and daily during the summer break until 11:00pm, (and) there is to be no overnight parking.” The city’s master plan considers this to be a “satellite lot”—a designation for “any lot outside the downtown where visitors or employees living outside the downtown, could park their vehicle and thence walk, bicycle, or shuttle to the downtown.” The master plan goes on to suggest that the ideal location for such satellite lots would be north of the city, to mitigate congestion on Lafayette Street, the town’s primary thoroughfare.
Since the downtown is composed of small blocks and lots, virtually entirely developed, there are few feasible locations (if any) to generate new parking solutions. More specifically, the city owns few properties that have the potential to be allocated for parking, so land acquisition may be required. The city’s best effort to do so would be implementing such options and areas within a short distance of a motorist’s destination on land that the city already owns.
This begs the question of what may be considered a short distance. General planning principles indicate people are willing to walk approximately a quarter mile to a destination after parking, which translates to a five-minute walk, based on the average walking speed [for most healthy adults, about 3mph]. Then, it may require consideration of what a motorist’s destination may be when traveling to Cape May. Maybe it’s the two-and-a-half-mile stretch of beach, or the commercial downtown where most dining and shopping options are concentrated. Perhaps it’s both. For reference, the satellite lot at Cape May Elementary School is a half mile from the Washington Street Mall and a tenth of a mile farther to Beach Avenue.
Acknowledging that the feasibility of a solution within the downtown areas is effectively null, how might we be able to develop a remedy to the parking problem? The ideal scenario is one in which many parking spaces can be realized with limited acquisition and construction costs. This is unlikely to be the case with a parking structure. The 2019 Master Plan Reexamination states the construction of a non-rectangular parking garage (as hypothesized for the Jackson Street lot) would inflate costs far beyond the $30,000 per space figure projected in 2018. Twenty years ago, in 2003, that plan would have required an estimated $4.2 million investment to yield 280 spaces. At the same time, an estimate of $5.2 million for a parking garage yielding 360 spaces was imagined for the Bank Street lot. Neither the city’s Planning Board nor the Parking and Traffic Subcommittee members have supported construction of a parking garage in Cape May. Construction costs have certainly increased over the last two decades—and have skyrocketed further over the last few years due to supply chain issues. The juice doesn’t seem worth the squeeze. Exploiting ground level surface parking is probably the most economical solution.
The next step is to study where such a project can be executed. Currently, there doesn’t seem to be any vacant land downtown that can simply be paved to produce new surface parking. A “satellite lot”—as defined by the city’s master plan—is probably the best option. The 2003 Master Plan included a “Feeder Study” which floated the idea of three locations as being the “most promising park and ride lots” requiring a shuttle service to access Cape Island. Those locations included Historic Cold Spring Village, the Rio Grande Mall, and Middle Township Elementary School #2. Other proposed sites included the Charles Sandman Consolidated School and the Carl T. Mitnick School. All those options would require coordination at the county level, between other municipalities, and with various organizations. Moreover, drivers would have to exit the parkway and go well out of their way to reach these isolated lots, then wait for a shuttle to arrive, as opposed to driving straight into town, rendering those options impractical.
The city’s parking problem needs a creative fix.
Imagine a place that could be redeveloped on the island, north of Cape May City’s downtown. Imagine a place within reasonable walking distance of both the beach and the Washington Street Mall. Imagine a place accessible to pedestrians, bicyclists, and, most notably, an existing shuttle service. Imagine one —if not the most—underutilized space within the city limits presenting an actual solution to this problem. Imagine parking in plain sight. It’s time to closely examine the Cape May Avenue Median.
This understated public space has remained idle for half a century since its formation during the development of the area in the early 20th century. The space truly has no purpose. Though it presents an obvious opportunity to serve as an enjoyable open space, it’s rarely utilized as such. Its existence is fundamentally intended to serve as a “grassland island” between the two opposing sides of Cape May Avenue, as documented on the city tax maps.
It remains unimproved. Only two of the blocks are contained with a perimeter curb. Not one of the blocks features any paths or walkways, except for segments of sidewalks along the short ends, at each intersection—which makes traversing the area difficult for anyone confined to a wheelchair. The median is aesthetically uninteresting, outside of the Mike Shouvlin Water Conservation Garden—a small, landscaped area on the Madison Street end, which is maintained by the city and the Cape May Kiwanis. Throughout the year, few people use and enjoy the median. Like much of Cape May, with signs posted on every block, it rejects those who walk their dogs around town. There is no seating. There is no lighting.
There is, however, an opportunity to transform a useless site into a space that has a function and serves a purpose. There’s an opportunity to give Cape May Avenue’s unappealing median a sense of place. It’s the perfect location for both a park and parking.
The new park would include walkways and hardscaping for visitors to meander through the space, from end to end. Benches sporadically located along these paths would provide a place to sit and rest. Water fountains would provide a refreshing drink on a hot summer day. Lighting would make the park safer and more comfortable in the evenings. New landscaping would create wildlife habitats and encourage visits from pollinators as well. If arriving by bike, riders would find racks and fix stations at every intersection for convenient bike storage and maintenance. Educational signage would offer information on the history of the area and the benefits of sustainable design elements of the park.
Enhancing the open space to become a destination, complete with the amenities of a true park, coupled with public metered street parking, presents an opportunity for Cape May to accomplish a significant, substantive planning effort for the first time in a long time. Considering that the city owns the land, that it’s not a county road, and the nature of the construction work, this is an impactful project that can be executed in a matter of months.
For those who have not recently ventured over to Cape May Avenue, a few statistics may reveal just how much space is underutilized. The median is divided into four blocks. The western-most block, capped by Madison Avenue, is approximately 1,100 feet long (more than three football fields end-to-end). The following three blocks, moving east toward Pittsburgh Avenue, are each approximately 620 feet long. The width of each block is 96 feet (longer than a professional basketball court). Getting straight to brass tacks—should both sides of the median be used for cars parking head-in (perpendicular to the road), the space could yield over 500 new parking spaces.
The benefit is obvious. If arranged to yield the maximum number possible, the four linear street blocks could provide over 50% more parking than the combined total of all public surface parking lots in the downtown area. It could provide more than two and half times the amount of parking that the largest private lot offers at Acme. That said, organizing cars side-by-side the entire length of each block would certainly create a monotonous scene. Yet, even creating sections of parking along the median, reducing the total number of new spaces, offers the potential to accommodate hundreds of additional cars and generate millions of dollars in revenue.
Surely, this proposal will face opposition—namely from those who own property or reside on Cape May Avenue. The presumed increase in the flow of traffic would be noticeable, but probably not overwhelming. However, the immediate visceral reaction will likely be an exclamation of how such a project would reduce property values in the area.
But would that really be the case?
Public streetside parking can actually enhance the value of single-family real estate for several reasons. It provides a convenient solution for accommodating visitors to the neighborhood. Whether it’s friends, family, or service providers, having nearby streetside parking ensures that guests have a place to park without causing inconvenience to residents or obstructing traffic. This accessibility to visitor parking adds value to the overall living experience and can make a neighborhood more welcoming and attractive to potential buyers. The presence of ample streetside parking can have positive spillover effects on neighboring properties, too. When a neighborhood has sufficient parking options, it reduces the likelihood of cars being parked haphazardly or on private property, such as blocking driveways or encroaching on lawns.
Considering Cape May’s small area, multi-modal transportation can also benefit from this streetside parking. The city’s masterplan has also placed an emphasis on multi-modal transportation options, including walking and cycling—both of which are already popular means of getting around town. What’s more, streetside parking can serve as a starting point for park-and-ride initiatives, where visitors park their vehicles and use trolleys, shuttles, and other modes of public transportation to make their way around town. This approach promotes sustainable transportation and reduces traffic congestion. Such public transportation already exists and is accessible by way of the Jitney, with routes that pass Cape May Avenue and canvass most of the city. Modifying these routes slightly would ensure the shuttle picks up potential riders from the park. By offering residents the flexibility to choose from various transportation modes, streetside parking promotes a sustainable and efficient community, which can also increase property values.
Studies have shown that, when it is more difficult to find parking, Americans are generally more willing to walk longer distances. Those who have spent 20 to 30 minutes searching for parking downtown during the summer may certainly be so inclined. This is especially true in areas with well-developed pedestrian infrastructure, such as sidewalks, crosswalks, and pedestrian-friendly streets—all of which are common throughout Cape May. In these areas, people will walk several blocks to their destination after parking their cars. From Cape May Avenue, in every direction, a pedestrian will likely find their destination is within a similar distance.
Every block of Cape May Avenue is a third of a mile, about a six-minute walk to the beach. For context—it’s a half mile, about a 10-minute walk, from the Cape May City Elementary School parking lot to the eastern end of the Washington Street Mall, where it intersects with Ocean Street. The distance and walking time are the same from the western end of Cape May Avenue to the entrance to the mall. A walk from the eastern end of Cape May Avenue, at its intersection with Pittsburgh Avenue, to the same point would be just about 1.25 miles and take roughly 25 minutes.
From the same intersection, at Cape May and Pittsburgh, a mile-long walk to the Lobster House would take about 20 minutes. Again, leaving from the same corner—closest to the Coast Guard Base—the walk to Congress Hall would be less than a mile and a half, taking less than 30 minutes. Overall, the distances people are willing to walk after parking their cars can vary widely based on conditions and individual preferences. However, it’s likely that most of Cape May’s visitors will find themselves walking comparable distances any given day, between walking to and from the beach or strolling the mall.
The question might also be raised: why add parking here, if meter-less parking is already available on both sides of Cape May Avenue’s two lanes? The case against new streetside parking along the Cape May Avenue Median might assert that it already exists. While that may be true, the parking is disorganized and limits efficiency. It’s likely that the redevelopment of the median, creating ample parking alongside the new Cape May Avenue Park, would attract a larger number of visitors to the park, thereby increasing its usage. This can create a vibrant and lively atmosphere, fostering community engagement and social interactions within the park. With more visitors, parking should be clearly demarcated to facilitate the safe and efficient organization of vehicles. This is the Field of Dreams mentality. If you build it, they will come.
Adding new metered parking capacity to the redefined open space makes the whole effort almost completely self-financing. Parking fees for this streetside parking can generate revenue to replenish the City’s Parking Trust, presumably tapped for upfront costs. This funding can be used for recurring maintenance, to enhance amenities, add recreational facilities, or improve the overall visitor experience at the park and throughout Cape May. Based on a $2.00 per hour meter, at 12 hours per day (10am-10pm) from April 1st to October 31st, one parking space could yield $5,136 in a summer. In a completely maximized scenario, 500 parking spaces would generate $2,568,000 in one season. As discussed, 500 spaces may not be desirable for the area. So, for the sake of argument—400 spaces, each used for only eight hours per day while meters are active, would total $1,369,600 in revenue.
This new streetside parking can also benefit nearby businesses, with visitors who park their vehicles there creating a positive economic impact for that side of town. After parking on Cape May Avenue, a short walk toward the beachfront would lead a motorist to dining options like the Pier House, the Peter Shields Inn, Hemingway’s, Sea Salt, or Harry’s. In the opposite direction, one could find their way to the Emlen Physick Estate, where vendors at seasonal festivals could surely benefit from more patrons, while new parking options would almost certainly alleviate the traffic congestion on Washington Street.
The parking project can be ecologically sustainable in a part of the island that was claimed by historic fill. Designing public streetside surface parking to mitigate climate-related issues such as excess stormwater requires a comprehensive approach that incorporates sustainable design principles. Reimagining the new parking portion of the thoroughfare, closest to the median, as being permeable paving, would allow stormwater to infiltrate through the pavement, reducing runoff. When designing the landscaped portions of the park, the goal should be to incorporate green infrastructure elements within and around the parking areas. The installation of rain gardens, bioswales, and vegetated strips can capture and treat stormwater runoff, potentially directing it to recharge the nearby Sewell Tract.Planting native trees and perennial shrubs—with the help of the Cape May Kiwanis, the Garden Club of Cape May, and others—could expand the Mike Shouvlin Water Conservation Garden. More trees would provide shade, and more flowers would enhance the aesthetic appeal.
Finally, this proposal has the potential to improve both streetscape and the street network. Imagine something like Pittsburgh Avenue’s current layout but with a wide linear park down the center. The redesigned Cape May Avenue would include dedicated on-street parking for each property owner, directly in front of their residences, as exists today. Each side would also include a designated bike path, connecting two existing bike lanes—Pittsburgh and Madison, respectively—and separating resident cars from driving lanes. This would realize the “Cape May Avenue Bicycle Boulevard” as proposed in the 2019 Master Plan Reexamination.
This arrangement would require the new streetside parking to claim a small portion of the median but would still maintain a park width of over 60 feet (wider than the Washington Street Mall). It may also require Cape May Avenue’s traffic to be reoriented to produce two one-way roads. However, aside from making way for parking lanes and bike paths, one-way streets are effective in mitigating congestion and expanding the street network’s capacity. This would be especially beneficial should the city use wayfinding signage to direct motorists toward the new park area via Sidney Avenue, the first available left upon entering town, then Texas to Pittsburgh. Most drivers do follow good directional signage once reaching a destination and tend to follow that same path over time without a second thought. Guiding people south on Washington Street, to use either East or West Streets to enter the Village Greene Community grid, would also decrease congestion dramatically and further alleviate vehicular traffic overall.
The benefits of this idea are several, while drawbacks are few. If nothing more, it has not previously been considered. The city has a problem, and this proposal offers a solution. The redesign of Cape May Avenue can produce an abundance of new parking, generate major revenue, and create a place where people want to be. The challenge will not be a matter of cost or constructability, but rather cooperation and compromise. Engagement from those who live in the area, and the public, along with city officials and committees to find an agreeable outcome could propel this concept to its realization.
Ultimately, it will require a concerted effort from various stakeholders looking beyond self-interests, finding common ground, and building public space.
Paul Farnan is a member of the American Institute of Architects and practices in Cape May, where he was born and raised. He attended the New Jersey Institute of Technology, earning a Bachelor of Architecture and a Master of Infrastructure Planning. His work began with detailing historic preservation efforts in New Jersey. He went on to lead contemporary architecture and planning design projects throughout the New York Metropolitan area. In 2018, Paul established Fulcrum Design Group with his wife, Cassandra. Since then, the two have worked on several projects on the island, including the Harriet Tubman Museum, the Prince Edward Inn, and the Old Laundry Cottage at The Chalfonte Hotel.