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Parking Lots

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Michael Kimmelman has a very interesting piece in the Times on taking parking lots seriously as architectural structures and community spaces. There is much to agree with here. The gigantic Wal-Mart parking lot that is at best 25% full on everyday but the days after Thanksgiving and Christmas is an ecological and architectural nightmare. The idea that parking is hard to find in America is almost always absurd; how often does one really have to park more than a few blocks away from your destination, barring you are going to Manhattan? Almost never. We have way too much parking and a century of federal policies backing up the continued paving of America.

So what to do with all this parking? Kimmelman points to a few examples of dead shopping mall parking lots becoming weirdly useful community spaces. But these are extreme exceptions. For every dead mall lot hosting hot dog trucks and farmer markets, there are 100 sitting there with no purpose except for drug transactions and sleeping in your car. Since Kimmelman focuses so heavily on the dead shopping mall, it’s worth examining this a little more. One of the biggest problems with dead shopping malls is the incentive of stores, often big grocery chains, to open ever larger stores nearby from their original store and then sit on the property to keep any competition out. As one example, in Hyde Park, New York, Stop & Shop moved from one big lot and built a larger store a half mile away. Rumors have it that the company is now going to abandon that newer space, go back to the original and build a Super Stop & Shop. While that might solve the current blight that affects this part of that historic town, it just opens up a new dead space. You see this kind of thing around the country. Winco, a Northwest chain, has held onto a space in my home town of Springfield, Oregon for at least 15 years. That whole mall is dead.

That’s a major urban issue that the government needs to deal with. There are concrete possible solutions–heavily penalize corporations that sit on dead malls, encourage them to sell those lands to home or apartment developers to redevelop the spaces into housing within the existing urban footprint, offer to buy up those spaces, tear up the parking lots, and turn them into parks. Any of these ideas are better than allowing the land to sit there with no penalty and no plan for redevelopment.

In the end, we can and probably should take parking lots seriously as community spaces. But they aren’t always very useful community spaces. They might provide a farmers market a decent space, but a park would probably provide a better one. Turning them into bus stops has value, but so does having the buses go to the neighborhoods where people live rather than making them drive there. The hot dog stands are great, but again, placing them in spaces where people actually go is even better. Any model that succeeds in finding something to do with these spaces is completely worth supporting, but far more important is figuring out how to turn the levers of government at all levels into reducing our parking spaces.

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