Too many parking lots in big city downtowns

by Mattie

More and more parking lots are taking up space in the downtown areas of major cities, it seems to me. I travel several days a week on business and this is what I see. Is this a good thing? It just seems like this trend is making the cities ugly, and it feels unsafe to walk by so many parking lots too. What do you think?

Editors' Comment You're right, Mattie, that surface parking lots have been occupying an increasing amount of downtown real estate. This evolution has been occurring since World War II-- roughly the same time period that downtowns have been declining as regional retail hubs.

A recent count showed at least 140 surface parking lots in Minneapolis, with many of them less than half full.

Often the spaces feel lonely and deserted, as sometimes machines replace even the sole parking lot attendant. At least an attendant can give directions!

The problem is that when anyone tries to remove parking, a huge fracas ensues. Often the business community thinks every business will go belly up immediately if there is no place to park. Sometimes they are right about that, although the most distinctive businesses draw customers regardless of the inconvenience of parking.

Another perspective is that property owners are simply trying to recover some of their costs. This may be a self-induced problem, as many thought that demolishing an older, hard-to-rent building to make parking was a lucrative proposition. Still, many are caught with the need to have a revenue stream to pay the debt service.

The remedies for this situation, which you rightly point out as a source of ugliness, includes several points:

1. Support public transit as much as possible. This includes providing adequate funding, which may require local additions to whatever state and federal subsidies are available. It also means that you should be a watchdog on the performance of your local transit agency, making sure that they provide convenient schedules and routes, clean vehicles, safety on and near platforms, and convenient parking if they have "park and ride" facilities in the suburbs.

Also a city might need a campaign to get the public back into the mindset that taking transit is a cool thing to do.

2. A conscious program to replace surface parking with garage parking. Parking garages have a bad reputation as feeling unsafe, but high quality and well-publicized video surveillance and light-reflecting and attractive colors can go a long way toward helping that situation. Attendants who are responsive and engaged improve the experience too.

3. Promoting walking and bicycling as transportation. Some vehicle trips from one side of downtown to the other are unnecessary. They may feel important to the driver, though, if walking would require crossing a major freeway or a busy street with a short pedestrian light, passing through what feels like a crime-ridden area, or traveling through an area where there is no pedestrian activity due to vacant buildings, all office use, and so forth.

4. Making sure that zoning requirements don't aggravate the situation. Downtowns should have eliminated minimum parking requirements for newly locating businesses by now, but probably there are a few that haven't.

5. Doubling down on economic development projects and downtown housing that can put an upward pressure on downtown rents. When the development market will pay more to the property owner than the parking lot, the land use will change. Yes, there are multi-year leases, but we smile as we say that we haven't heard of any perpetual leases for parking lots.

It's an uphill battle for most big cities, because business interests and civic leaders are organized, and they tend to cave in too easily to pressure from a few people who think these surface parking lots are essential.

In contrast, people who support beauty, good urban design, transit, and walking and biking as transportation often are not organized in a city and therefore don't have an effective voice.

Since you are a frequent business traveler, Mattie, a tiny note to each city or post on the Facebook page of the city or visitors bureau might be a good way for you to vent your frustration.


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