Thursday, December 10, 2015

What have we learned from the urban big box parking boondoggles of the past?

I realize that two examples don't suggest a trend, but these two examples of underutilized urban parking lots suggest a real problem - that hopefully we are on a path to overcome - in the world of urban retail.

In Columbia Heights, DC, the 1,000 space parking lot adjacent to DC USA, whose anchors include Target and Bed Bath & Beyond, remained empty enough upon opening in 2008 that "the operator typically blocks off one of its two sprawling levels" ["At Columbia Heights Mall, So Much Parking, So Little Needed", Washington Post, 10/09]. The $40 million dollar parking lot was financed with public monies. In 2010, the developer, likely with approval from their tenants, started renting spaces out for daily and monthly use.

Fortunately, we have come a long way since the days when suburban style big box retailers were squeamish about urban locations that violated their parking requirements. At the time that both of these projects were conceived, there were very few examples of big box stores in urban setting, so offering parking was a way for the public sector to mitigate the perceived risk of an untested product for retailers. But the truth is we can't put all the blame on the retailer or developer. It wasn't just the retailers who wanted parking. In many communities development stokes fear that shoppers will troll the neighborhood for parking, creating a residential parking shortage. To make matters worse, antiquated zoning based on suburban parking requirements sometimes require far more parking than might be truly necessary.

In New York, there was a similar situation with East River Plaza ["East River Plaza Parking Still Really, Really Empty, New Research Shows", Streetsblog NYC, 4/12]. The mall, like DC USA, is anchored by Target, as well as Manhattan's first Costco, and opened for business in 2010. According to the New York Times, the parking garage cost $62.4 million to build.

I did a quick analysis of parking ratios for both sites and found that they both come in, on average 2.10 spots per 1,000 SF of retail.

For those familiar with parking ratios, 2 spaces per 1,000 SF of retail might sound insufficient. These days, major suburban shopping centers offer 4 or more parking spaces per 1,000 SF of retail. But to be fair, it is light years from where we have come.  In 1954, the American Society of Planning Officials, the predecessor to today's American Planning Association (APA) published a report on "Site Design, Parking and Zoning for Shopping Centers" that looked at parking ratios for 49 of the nations shopping centers and on average, the parking ratio was 9.2/1,000 sf.

So while we are still learning about what makes sense in urban areas, what we can say is that transit rich communities like Columbia Heights and East Harlem can support retail with much less parking than they currently have. And the public sector could have gotten away with contributing much less in public funds to underutilized parking. Of course, hind sight is 20/20 and we may not have known that at the time, but it's certainly helpful to know for the future.

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