Friday, March 2, 2012

Dealing with a Downtown Parking Overload

Austin Contrarian's Chris Bradford, who has closely examined parking in and around Austin's downtown, wrote back in December that sometimes parking regulations don't matter.  Even where parking minimums are low or absent, location is central and transit is accessible, developers may still pile on the parking to accommodate high levels of car ownership among affluent tenants and owners or lack of walkable options in a neighborhood that is in the early stages of development.

This creates a challenge for the emergence of pedestrian-centric neighborhoods in formerly underpopulated or undeveloped areas, since the first new residents to arrive in such a location will necessarily be somewhat isolated and dependent on car travel for a wide range of needs, even where transit is adequate.  Once ample, cheap and convenient parking is in place, the habit will be difficult to break.  Maximum parking standards, or requirements that parking be placed underground or "lined" by other buildings, may not always be feasible and, in any event, address only part of the problem. 

What if, instead of reacting to the parking supply provided by developers, cities anticipated demand and acted to provide a reasonable amount of supply in a manner that minimizes the adverse impact of parking structures on an increasingly walkable area?  As an example, at right is an image of a city square in Bastia, Corsica.  Surrounding the square is urbanism of the hyper-dense Genoese variety (Genoa governed the island for around 400 years), with apartments rising straight up from very narrow streets. The square has been excavated for a major municipal parking lot, the unobtrusive entrance to which is visible in the image.  In this case, the city long predated the garage, but why not proceed in the reverse order?

Adaptation of old city squares to host parking is very common throughout Europe, and has made occasional appearances in the United States as well.  Savannah's centuries-old Ellis Square, over which a parking structure was built in the 1950s, was recently reconstructed with an underground parking garage.  Nashville's Public Square, which I mentioned last week, now has a multi-story  garage beneath it topped by an award-winning green roof. 

In most cases, these parking facilities are intended to cater to commuters or shoppers, but there is no reason they couldn't serve permanent residents as well. Combined with maximum or underground parking requirements, a city taking this approach could potentially strike a balance between a walkable and dense urbanism with high-quality public spaces and a reasonable opportunity for car storage. 

A significant hurdle would be overcoming the tendency for public parking authorities to underprice parking.  Taking the approach advocated by Donald Shoup, the purpose of such a garage would not be to guarantee a space to all – an impossibility, if high density is a goal – but to establish a price that leaves at least one space available at all times.

The intended goal would be a car-lite environment in which parking is permitted only to the extent of providing residents the limited option of a parking space that is neither cheap nor perfectly convenient, but which has a minimal effect on an otherwise pedestrian-centric urban environment.  Would a plan like this work in practice?  Would investors shy away?  Would the return on investment from a more intensively built downtown, relieved of the cost burden of expensive parking structures that occupy valuable real estate, outweigh the cost of the garages?  There are a lot of questions here, but there must be a better alternative to the parking-heavy urban infill currently appearing in many downtown areas.


  1. "cities anticipated demand and acted to provide a reasonable amount of supply"

    When it comes to American cities, the obvious response is that they already have (more than) a reasonable amount of supply, just by counting on-street spaces and existing garages. Underpriced parking is problem number one, two and three.

  2. I agree that over supply of free/cheap parking is the number one planning problem in American cities. Eliminating or at least reducing minimums is a good start. Though the downtown developments discussed in the linked article provided more parking than the new reduced minimums, they were at least lower than the old standard minimums.

    While there are many strategies to further reduce parking, one important factor to consider is a city's subdivision pattern and resulting lot sizes. The developments in the linked article were fairly large. Big projects developed by institutional developers are beholden to corporate tenants and lenders. These guys are just as tied into business as usual thinking as any planner, politician or suburban voter. The large size of the project and huge dollars involved decrease willingness to take risks. The safe option is to provide as much parking as everybody else or even more.

    Portions of a city subdivided into smaller lots are a breeding ground for small, entrepreneurial developers willing to take risks with reduced or no parking. A row of separately developed brownstone apartments or shops is much more likely to result in a pedestrian-friendly number of parking spaces than one large development of the same aggregate size.

    If a city were to provide unobtusive market rate parking under a plaza as a "starter" for ped-friendly development, it should also add lanes/alleys to break up surrounding large blocks and subdivide large vacant lots.

    1. Thanks very much for your comment, John. I agree that a much finer grained network of streets, blocks and parcel dimensions would help here, but there are few if any examples I can find of this approach to downtown redevelopment -- if it does happen, it seems to occur in spite of, rather than due to, city planning efforts. A city does have the power, at least, to open new roads, so adding lanes and alleys is always a possibility (the Nashville plan I wrote about previously did envision a handful of new streets, but far short, in my opinion, of what is necessary).

  3. Agreed. As an addendum, perhaps part of the problem is this tendency to apportion and develop large parcels, which (again) limits the amount of players, financiers, and hence risk, that can go into redevelopment?

    A superior option might be to, instead of conveying an entire parcel (which more often than not equates to an entire block) to a developer, simply subdividing the parcel into the maximal number of individual lots the local zoning* allows and then selling them at auction would be an excellent maneuver to place them in the maximal number of available hands and also maximize the returns generated from them**.

    * I.e. zoning that is one step denser than the ambient density around the parcel. Or if the neighborhood is de novo, the maximal available/applicable density, depending on the intended end result.
    ** Wasn't this how we did things back in the 19th century?

    1. Part of the problem here is that urban renewal schemes frequently wiped out the 19th century pattern of small lots and consolidated them into superblocks for resale to large real estate interests ("diversity of ownership" was a common criterion for a blighted neighborhood). Boston's West End is probably the best example of that, but there are dozens of other examples.

      But yes, as far as I know, that was how land sales proceeded almost as a rule in the 19th century. It made a certain amount of sense: a large investor could always buy more than one parcel, but the small lot sizes allowed the purchasing power of a much larger number of buyers to come into play as well.

    2. Another part of the problem is the tax code. Since capital gains from development can be rolled into new development, there is an incentive to develop at a size that will shelter the tax owed on the capital gains of a previous successful development.

      Converting that to rolling over capital gains per acre to each acre of a new development would shift the incentive from sprawl development to more intensive development, making it more attractive to look for ways to magnify the value of already valuable acreage.

  4. I think Steve makes a fantastic point - far too many cities rely on a redevelopment strategy driven by giant developers using giant financing schemes (lavish TIFs) to rebuild giant tracts of land. This "urban renewal" strategy has virtually remained unchanged since the 1960s, but today the resulting buildings are only made to look more "organic" by faking the appearance of variation and incremental development in their facades. The 19th century urban subdivision strategy has its drawbacks too, but at least it allows small players to participate. (Wasn't this how Boston's Back Bay was built?)

    I find both parking minimums and maximums ridiculous. In those cases where a developer would be personally compelled to provide more parking than the minimums would have required, then it does indeed make sense to look for intelligent ways to integrate that parking into a downtown without damaging the urban/pedestrian continuity of that downtown.

    The underground parking garage actually seems to be a dying phenomenon in US cities: back when "urban renewal" was first initiated, a lot of the earliest megadevelopments contained underground parking. But many new developments now tend to contain above-ground parking garages instead. Above-ground garages are self-evidently cheaper, but they also cause far more damage to the pedestrian realm (every city has its "dead zone" of blank garage walls and gloomy garage entrances).

    That underground garage entrance from Bastia is quite tasteful. It intrudes minimally on the pedestrian realm and pedestrian-centric pavings, street furniture, and street geometries remain intact. But can you imagine what this kind of underground entrance would/does look like in the US? Our overblown traffic engineering and design codes would mandate highwaylike geometries and materials for that entrance ramp (the Bastia example probably works well because the design is so tight and minimal that cars are basically forced to crawl in and out). A mess of mandated auto-centric asphalt and concrete accessories would (and already have) turn a US plaza + underground parking garage + ramp entrance complex into a repellent, barren space cut off from the surrounding urban fabric. Not only do our parking minimums/maximums need to be thrown out, but to get good underground parking garages we'd have to reform the design codes dictating their form too.

    Ultimately I think this parking issue is merely part of a larger problem: suburban codes and design policies were inappropriately imposed on urban areas, leading to all kinds of distortions. Now we're stuck with a bunch of weird hybrids that are stuck somewhere in between being real cities or real suburbs, and they perform poorly at each task.

    1. I'm a bit divided on the parking regulations question. I agree that a requirement for parking minimums is no less objectionable than a requirement that a builder set aside a certain percentage of the lot as "open space" (i.e. setbacks, or the slightly more flexible incentive zoning plans). In both cases, the city is passing the buck on basic planning responsibilities (transportation and parks) by infringing on the rights of the landowner -- and the results are often poor, since the owner will do the minimum necessary to obtain the benefit or meet the requirement.

      But parking maximums, on the other hand, can be seen in a different light. After all, a city has a right to be concerned with the number of vehicles that are brought in and kept in-town, and which use public streets. It can be seen as part of a broader transportation and planning strategy. New York and Boston have both effectively had parking maximums as part of long-term environmental and transportation planning strategies, and in both cases the city has been the better for it.

  5. Boston managed to pull off an underground parking garage below the Common that is fairly unobtrusive.

    Now, looking at the new Assembly Square project in Somerville, you can see an example of this tendency of blockbuster developers to over-provision parking. They are getting a new infill station on the Orange Line, with the help of the MBTA, but there is an incredible amount of garage parking planned, and far more than even the city minimums require. Then add the surface parking lots of the nearby malls, and it becomes depressing.

    1. Matthew -- I'm trying to find a site plan for that Somerville project, and this is the best I was able to come up with:

      The presence of the new station notwithstanding, that appears on first glance to be primarily a autocentric design. I'd be interested to read your take on it.

    2. I actually compiled some references and a write-up a while ago which I placed on but I haven't had time lately to continue working on it. Hopefully that will be of interest to you, though.

      The Master Plan linked from the sidebar has just about every document related to the project scanned in, if you need more details.

      I should also mention that Assembly Square is pretty close to Sullivan "Square" which is already an extremely high traffic bus and Orange line transfer node. However, Sullivan "Square" is underneath I-93 and largely covered with parking lots, highway ramps and "greenspace". It is a pretty dangerous place to be a pedestrian, as I rediscovered last weekend. A shame though, considering the transit access that is already available right there. Technically it is in Charlestown (Boston) not Somerville, though many residents of East Somerville do cross I-93 and use the station.

  6. The vast majority of Toronto's downtown parking supply is underground, with most new towers building 4-5 levels of underground parking. Many entrances are from back alleys and such, but even those with street entrances aren't too noticeable imo, like this one:,-79.393129&daddr=Fort+York+Blvd&hl=en&ll=43.65123,-79.370915&spn=0.002154,0.004823&sll=43.643343,-79.387121&sspn=0.034223,0.077162&geocode=%3BFdTkmQIdloRE-w&mra=dme&mrsp=0&sz=14&t=h&z=18&layer=c&cbll=43.651107,-79.370861&panoid=v1Rhsr2UNFcDzugtCc1lPw&cbp=12,238.96,,0,-3.4

    There are a couple that are much more noticeable, this one serving a large office complex is the worst I can think of, but most aren't this bad:,-79.393129&daddr=Fort+York+Blvd&hl=en&ll=43.646914,-79.381875&spn=0.004309,0.009645&sll=43.643343,-79.387121&sspn=0.034223,0.077162&geocode=%3BFdTkmQIdloRE-w&mra=dme&mrsp=0&sz=14&t=h&z=17&layer=c&cbll=43.646883,-79.381996&panoid=tt5x5_FRcdygxIgrVQd42A&cbp=12,350.4,,0,1.3

    I can't think of any cases where underground parking was built under an existing square, but there are several newer squares which were built with parking under them.

    Regarding trying to sell off small parcels at a time, I guess that can work for government owned land, but aren't most new developments on parking lots and other privately owned lands?

    1. Nicolas: Thanks for those examples. It looks to me like Toronto's downtown is so heavily built out that surface or above-ground garage parking is no longer economical for new construction. That is the desired goal, but the question for me is how to reach that point under today's conditions. The design issues for underground parking can, as you show, be worked out in a reasonable way.

    2. Even way out in the suburbs in areas similar to Tysons Corners, the parking for multifamily is often underground or at least under the building. Even in small scale developments like in my parents' suburb's downtown.

      For more low/midrise developments, you can have something similar to dingbats, but with the parking being accessed from the rear. This is pretty common in my university town, ex:

      This is a large suburban townhouse development with underground parking, although the ramps are pretty big:

      This is a small office building in my parents' suburb's downtown, it has parking on part of the ground floor and probably also underground:

      Do buildings in Austin or Nashville require foundations? If they do you might as well put parking in them.

      If not, even if they do building surface or above-ground garages, couldn't those still be redeveloped once the area gets closer to build out? They could be located towards the back to minimize their impact.

    3. Nicolas -- that townhouse development is a great find! That is essentially the idea I had in mind, although this particular one is dressed up with suburban aesthetics. There are a lot of interesting things going on there with the unusual fire lanes and the large number of access points to the underground garage.

      I'm not certain about Nashville's building code, but I can say that much of the parking for new projects has been above-ground. In theory, surface lots could be redeveloped, but in practice, site design can eliminate that possibility, as with these new Nashville townhouses:

      Thanks again for the links!

  7. Multistory parking garages with street-facing retail are a great option. Much cheaper than digging, and quite pedestrian-welcoming.,-75.202526&spn=0.002327,0.003315&t=m&z=18&layer=c&cbll=39.954189,-75.202568&panoid=2oT-9CYFSb6weCn7TpzFPA&cbp=12,318.53,,0,-7.86,-75.198104&spn=0.002327,0.003315&t=m&layer=c&cbll=39.953562,-75.198104&panoid=wyCgvEv2zIghBXECbVJKTA&cbp=12,43.56,,0,-2.48&z=18

  8. Austin, at least, has plenty of parking downtown; it just needs to manage it better. Big infill developments like the one I cited in the first link provide plenty of parking, as I noted, so I don't think city intervention is needed there.
    Where there may be a need for city-funded garages is along our aging, suburban arterials, such as Airport Boulevard in Austin. It's a standard four-lane, divided suburban arterial with a bunch of small, aging strip malls on either side, with the exception of a now nearly-empty suburban shopping mall. There's planning underway to redevelop Airport Boulevard, which will culminate in the adoption of a form-based code and retrofitting the street with better sidewalks and curb parking.
    Except what good will it do? You have a bunch of small, old, cheap buildings, each surrounded by a relatively small parking lot. No one is going to tear those down to build newer, bigger, more expensive buildings with less parking. No one lot is big enough to hold a development that would justify a structured parking garage. If the city wants to prod development, it might have to step in to build a garage and eat the initial loss. (And there would be an initial loss, even if the city charged market-rate for parking; the redevelopment would lag the parking garage.)
    I don't know. I'm not crazy about this idea, to be honest. But I don't know what else to do about the parking.

    1. "If the city wants to prod development, it might have to step in to build a garage and eat the initial loss. (And there would be an initial loss, even if the city charged market-rate for parking; the redevelopment would lag the parking garage.)"

      Hi Chris -- I'm assuming there would be a loss at first, with a lag time for redevelopment that could be measured in years or decades. Still, this is true, I would imagine, for many municipal garages -- Nashville's that I mentioned was blasted five stories down into solid limestone at great expense, and still offers $115 monthly parking, less than many other lots with less central locations in the downtown. My hope would be that the encouragement of car-free development (spurred both by the availability of parking and the provision of the amenity of a square) would eventually far outweigh that initial cost.

      It's an idea I'm just tossing out there for discussion -- whether it could work in practice, I really don't know. I'm not aware of anywhere it has been tried, although Alys Beach, which I wrote about back in August, did preemptively provide common squares/surface lots before the surrounding housing went in, while prohibiting most on-site or street parking. It's a private project, granted, but the idea is basically the same.