Sunday, November 1, 2009

Mandatory parking requirements, or, How to kill your Downtown real fast without even trying, Part 2.

So here’s a plan of a stretch of Main Street, basically what you saw in the pictures in the last post. I drew it in PowerPoint but it’s basically to scale. You’ve got buildings right up to the sidewalk. The lots—see the black dashed lines? They’re anywhere from twenty to sixty feet or more in width. Lot depth is sort of irregular. There are some alleys and side streets but for the most part it’s a continuous street wall.

Here’s the lot fabric without the buildings:

Like I said, it’s not exactly tidy. Some very small and, in particular, very narrow lots. Now, that’s a really good thing—in a proper, pedestrian-friendly Downtown, you want to keep that articulation of the street wall at a human scale. And of course there are existing buildings on these lots, which means a lot of neat little spaces for small businesses to start up in.

You need some big anchors. But small businesses are key to your Downtown. Without them, it loses all its personality and local colour. You need those small spaces.

So, once you leave Main Street, there’s a lot of vacant lots (or old, clapped-out buildings ready to be torn down) with this kind of fabric. You want to put buildings on them and build yourself more Main Street.

Now, someone may object at this point and say, “Why are we stuck with this lot fabric? Why can’t we buy up some of these vacant lots and put ‘em together and make bigger lots?” Well, you can do that up to a point. But the problem is, as soon as you’re dealing with three or four landowners, each of them wanting a good price for their land. There’s usually one who will hold you hostage—usually once you’ve bought out the other three. I think in developer-speak there’s a word for this—it’s called a “ransom strip.” Consolidation is hard. Maybe you can put together two lots but beyond that, you’re basically stuck with the lots as they exist.

Now, suppose you tried to build more of this—exactly like this, exactly what people want, on some of the vacant lots around your existing Main Street—but with one difference. The difference is, your land use by-law requires any new development to put in parking stalls.

Well, the simplest and cheapest way to do that is to just put the parking in front. So if you do that, here’s what you get:

A parking stall has to be at least twenty feet (6m) deep. So the new development has to be pushed back twenty feet from the sidewalk to accommodate a row of cars parked out front.

This has two immediate effects.

First of all, you’ve just turned your street line into a parking lot. Anyone walking down this street will feel like they’re walking through a parking lot because their interface will be the butt ends of a bunch of cars. And during off-peak times, when those parking stalls are empty, it’s a twenty-foot-wide strip of asphalt. Just imagine walking through that, and then ask yourself if it’s somewhere you particularly want to be. If you're going to have to walk through a parking lot to get to where you want to be, you might as well just go to the mall.

Secondly, by taking up the front twenty with parking, you’ve seriously reduced the buildable area of the lot. This is particularly true of the small and shallow lots. That one on the far left—the one that could be the candy store or the little buck-a-slice pizza place—has just lost almost half of its buildable area. Same with the one on the far right. You want small spaces for small businesses, but if you make them TOO small no one can use them.

Now, obviously you wouldn’t build it that way. If you did, you’d have a huge traffic problem because the street line would be one big driveway opening—five or six blocks with cars backing out and pulling in along its whole length.

That’s why parking lots have defined driveways where you drive in and then go down a parking aisle to your stall. Like so:

So, realistically, for even a single-loaded parking lot, you have to push the buildings forty feet (12m) back--twenty for one tier of stalls plus twenty for the aisle. You’ve immediately doubled the width of that nasty asphalt strip.

And to make it worse, you’re actually getting LESS parking. Because part of that frontage has to be reserved for the driveways so people can get in and out.

So the minute you try to put in a semi-realistic parking lot, you double the asphalt and actually get less parking for your trouble. Anyone trying to build and rent these buildings is going to have to factor in the cost of the land and the cost of the paving and drainage into their rent and it’s going to make that floor space more expensive.
Meanwhile, look at those guys on the far left and far right. With a forty-foot setback, you’ve basically made them disappear. There’s no room on those small lots for anything but a couple of parking stalls. Actually, one parking stall each! You’ve traded two small-business spaces for two parking stalls.

So for all intents and purposes, those small lots don’t exist. That’s one time it’s easy to do land assembly: when you have a lot that’s so small that any moron can see it’s useless under the existing development rules. When that happens, those small lots get bought up and turned into driveways and a couple of parking stalls.

Realistically, if you want your parking lot to work, you’ll need some kind of barrier along the street line. This is the “green space” that everyone talks about. It’s a little narrow strip of grass that forces everyone in the parking lot to use the driveway. It also holds snow banks in winter. But by making it “green space”—what’s often called a “buffer”—we get to pretend that we have created an attractive urban space. Forty feet of asphalt is terrible, but take forty feet of asphalt and put it behind three to six feet of grass and suddenly it’s okay.

(Sarcasm doesn’t come through in print. So, please note: I am being sarcastic. “Green strips” are another word for “lipstick on a pig.”)

Anyway, that "green strip's" main function is going to be to store snowbanks in winter.

Also, you’ll need a little sidewalk in front of the building itself for people to walk on once they’ve gotten out of their cars. You don’t need much—maybe another three to six feet (1-2m.)

So here’s what you’ve done. You’ve obliterated two small building lots; cut the buildable area of the others in half; paved half the land; and all in exchange for one, two, three... twenty-one parking stalls.

In other words... a strip mall.

Nice work, Gropius.

In the next post I'll talk about why putting the parking around back doesn't really change anything.


  1. It's interesting. I'm in Fredericksburg, Texas. The Main street (also called Hauptstrasse), is wide enough that, when it was built, a wagon with a six-horse team could make a u-turn. Today, it's a vibrant center to a community, with lots of angle parking.

    Riding a bicycle through the back roads of Texas is a bit of an eye-opener. "Best Practices" in areas where you're trying to find room for 10 people on a dime don't really impress those where your only neighbours are deer, antelopes, and the odd Longhorn Steer.

    And, "Easy Rider" notwithstanding, the folks down here are as friendly to us two-wheeled critters as anywhere in the world.

    The Senior

  2. Senior - I've seen that kind of thing around. It's not too bad, actually--they have that in downtown Charlottetown, which is about as cute and touristy and pleasant as you can get.

    Something like that works because (a) you have a VERY wide right-of-way to begin with, (b) the quality of the built environment is high--I haven't seen Fredericksburg but I'll wager the buildings are old/historic, at least two stories and have a lot of windows and doors right out onto the sidewalk, and (c) you have a real sidewalk running between that on-street parking and the buildings. It all works because you've taken the cars and left them out on the street, and given the space directly in front of the buildings to the pedestrian realm.