As Tucson continues to grow, does the city have a parking problem?

If there's one thing that American drivers claim as a fundamental, inalienable right, it's a parking space. In our cars-über-alles culture, parking is perceived as some sort of elemental natural resource, like water from the tap—no matter where you drive or when you get there, there ought to be a perfectly placed parking space waiting for you.

A simple observation of cars parading around crowded parking lots, as their drivers seek the one primo space that's a little closer to the front door than any other, bears this out. People waste far more time trying to find that perfect spot than they would spend walking the extra few meters from a more distant but readily available space.

Small wonder, then, that parking is an issue of great complexity, consternation and conflict, or that more than a few people seem to be willing to cut off their noses to spite their faces, rather than graciously share public resources for the greater good.

Tucson's ParkWise Commission gets the fun job of sorting these messes out, with myriad competing interests buzzing in their ears. One of the messier cauldrons currently bubbling is the area around Fourth Avenue near downtown. Change is afoot, and not a moment too soon, according to some folks—or, as others have it, change is to be avoided at all costs.

Like it or don't, our sleepy little pueblo is growing up into a real city. The explosion of vertical space and new development in the area between the University of Arizona and downtown has left current parking policies lacking. Businesses fear a parking shortage, while residents fear an onslaught of drunken revelers—er, parking customers—peeing in their flower beds and forcing them to park away from their homes.

Squeezed in the middle are people like Shawn Burke, who has owned the Historic Y at the corner of Fifth Avenue and University Boulevard for the past nine years and has been wrangling over parking the whole time. Burke is upset that the dozens of small businesses and nonprofits in his building have been steadily losing parking as a result of the city's policies, while hundreds of available spaces nearby go unused on a regular basis.

Burke is the type of guy who methodically combs the neighborhood compiling his own survey data on parking capacity and usage and then turns it over to the powers that be with detailed recommendations—which is to say, he's a civic-minded pain in the ass. That's a good thing, since rarely do things change for the better without somebody applying a little pain to someone else's ass.

"Tucson doesn't really have a parking problem," Burke told me. "It has a problem of allocation of resources, which was created by the bureaucracy." He concludes that there's plenty of parking, but too much of it is off-limits to almost everyone. "The problem is this idea that residents own the street in front of their houses."

I'm compelled to agree. Tucson's residential permit program has sequestered entire blocks on behalf of neighborhood residents, but much of the parking capacity on those blocks is not really needed or used by the beneficiaries. Street frontage sits empty while visitors to the Historic Y circle the building looking for legal spaces, often in vain.

"Why can't you just make it like all the other cities I know of?" Burke asks. Most of them have a zoned system that allows residents to park anywhere in their permitted zone, while visitors can only use it on a strictly time-limited basis.

ParkWise program administrator Donovan Durband seems confident that it can all be resolved. Burke is somewhat skeptical of Durband's reassurances, but remains surprisingly optimistic, considering how long he's been dealing with this. He's engaged neighborhood leaders and thinks there are enough level heads involved to work something out—eventually.

One way or another, things will keep changing. The streetcar is coming, and lots of development along with it. At some point next spring, you'll have to start feeding a meter to park on Fourth Avenue and some adjacent cross streets. Beyond that, it's a bit murky. Lots of tools are on the table, including the zoned approach, employee/business permits, public-private lease arrangements, stricter residential permit requirements and higher fees.

As Durband points out, parking infrastructure ain't exactly cheap, and while the Historic Y may be a poster child for these conflicts, the issue is much bigger than one building or even one neighborhood. It's about our fair city dragging itself into the 21st century, kicking and screaming.

This seems like an awful big kerfuffle for something as banal as parking, but what do I know? I'm usually on my bicycle, so I park right outside the front door, pretty much every time.