Thursday, January 19, 2012

We love parks, but do we love parking more?

2005 aerial photo in west Charlotte (Photo: Nancy Pierce)
Two lengthy and thought-provoking articles about parking are making the rounds this month, sparking what I hope will be a lot more thinking about, and innovative approaches toward, that mundane but ugly creature, the parking lot.

New York Times architecture critic Michael Kimmelman, in "Paved But Still Alive: It's Time To Take Parking Lots Seriously, As Public Spaces," lists some astounding numbers: Estimates of the number of U.S. parking spaces range from 105 million to 2 billion, a third of them in parking lots. Eight parking places for every car in this country. Houston has 30 parking places per resident. If you estimate the country has 500 million parking spaces (as author Eran Ben-Joseph of MIT does), they cover a combined 3,590 square miles, an area larger than Delaware and Rhode Island put together.

Kimmelman writes about the so-called Pensacola Parking Syndrome (a term possibly coined by architect Andres Duany in Suburban Nation), in which a city tears down its old buildings to create parking spaces to entice more people downtown, until people no longer want to go there because it has become an empty lot. He suggests that more cities should set limits on the number of parking spaces and urges New York to abandon what he calls "outmoded zoning codes from the auto-boom days requiring specific ratios of parking spaces per housing unit, or per square foot of retail space." And he tells the interesting tale of the parking lot of the Dutchess County Mall in  Fishkill, N.Y., and the planning firm Interboro. Well, you can read that yourself.

Longer, quirkier and even more interesting, is Dave Gardetta's "Between the Lines," in Los Angeles magazine. He has his own set of amazing stats, such as this:
In Los Angeles, at least, building a spot in an above-ground deck costs developers as much as $40,000 per parking spot. With an underground deck, it's more like $140,000 per space. And he makes the point, or at least, he lets UCLA planning professor and parking expert Donald Shoup make the point, that building so much parking for Disney Hall space for 2,188 cars below ground, costing $110 million, paid with county bonds was remarkably poor planning. "Like any parking lot entrance," Gardetta writes, "the one on Bunker Hill sucked air from street life. 'L.A.,' says Shoup, 'required 50 times more parking under Disney Hall than San Francisco would allow at their own hall.' "

It's a conundrum faced all over the country, and one Charlotte's planners wrestle with continually. When institutions such as churches, hospitals and schools locate in neighborhoods and especially when they grow, they build large surface parking lots and start gobbling the neighborhood. Squabbles over lots and decks (but mostly lots) have erupted for years in Myers Park, Dilworth and, more recently, in Wilmore, where Greater Galilee Baptist Church wanted to expand and build a bigger parking lot.

Cities, including Charlotte, need to be leaders on this issue. That's tough, especially politically. People may say they love parks, but what really has the tightest grip on their hearts appears to be parking. Every one of us who drives seems to have an instinct to find The Best Parking Space, an impulse so powerful I think it must be hardwired into our brains, the search for the direct route and prime spot. I think it's related to the hardwiring that propels us to jaywalk instead of go to the corner to cross and to create goat-paths across the grass instead of taking a less convenient paved walk. Whatever it is, letting city neighborhoods be consumed by parking lots is terribly unwise.

But unlike New York or Los Angeles, which have extensive public transit systems, a Sun Belt city like Charlotte can't just assume that if parking becomes too inconvenient people will take the bus or the subway. Here, lousy parking can kill a business. Yet, as Kimmelman points out, many parking lots are built that then aren't full. Garages near the new Yankee Stadium, built over objections of Bronx neighbors, are never more than 60 percent full, even on game days, he reports.

I've long wondered if the city of Charlotte couldn't somehow create a parking deck revolving fund, to build decks (lined with businesses or apartments so they're not ugly; excellent examples to be found in Gateway Village on West Trade Street) that churches and offices and smaller businesses could share, as a way to cut down on surface parking lots. The city has helped large developments with parking decks, but that requires a big development; most of the city's development is much smaller-scale.

Decks are expensive. Surface lots aren't, except for buying the land to put them on. That's why the city needs to take the lead on building decks and using revenues to pay down construction costs, or maybe pay to improve transit. ("Free" parking isn't really free anyway, so why not make its cost more visible to users?) I'm not a banker or a developer so the aforementioned scheme probably has lots of holes in it. But smart, creative people could figure out a scheme that would work IF we had city leaders willing to be out front  on the issue.

I checked with Planning Director Debra Campbell to make sure the city hadn't already done some studies of the overall parking dilemma that I had missed. It hasn't. "We have revised some standards for certain areas and for certain districts," she answered, via e-mail. Surface lots are no longer allowed as a primary use in areas zoned UMUD (the uptown mixed-use district), for instance. Transit areas have lower parking requirements.  
And, she said, "We may look at this issue [parking] pending the results of a project we are calling the Zoning Ordinance Assessment that will be launched this summer."