Transforming LA parking lots into housing for the homeless

To help speed along a plan to provide housing for the homeless, Los Angeles is targeting the development of city-owned parking lots:

The idea of converting public parking to housing has been around for decades in L.A. but has gained little traction. In the 1980s, Mayor Tom Bradley proposed leasing rights to developers to build multifamily housing, but there was no follow-up…

The new parking lot review grew out of an urgency to implement Proposition HHH, the $1.2-billion bond measure approved by the voters to help fund the construction of 1,000 permanent supportive housing units each year.

With taxpayer funds now committed, a new obstacle emerged. The scarcity of suitable land in the city’s highly competitive real estate market could add years to the start-up time for new projects…

In almost every case, the scale of the project would change the character of a neighborhood, potentially bringing new life to aging business districts, but almost certainly stirring opposition in some. The strategy is getting its first test in Venice.

This is a clever way to jumpstart such a project – finding land is always difficult and the city already owns these lots – and one that is likely to encounter lots of opposition. How many businesses or residents next to these parking lots will desire these changes?

Yet, opposing the redevelopment leaves the nearby people arguing in favor of parking lots. This is not typically what people want to see: parking lots are visual blights, they may not receive much use, they include lots of traffic noise, lights, and pollution, and they are less preferable to nice buildings that help bring in revenue and improve the quality of the streetscape (and by extension improve property values). If a developer was to go into a typical urban or suburban neighborhood, very few people would be in favor of transforming an existing building or lot into a parking lot (unless that lot or building was a complete eyesore or vacant for years or some extreme case).

And if you can’t build housing for homeless on these lots, perhaps because of opposition from neighbors or because the lots themselves do not work for housing units, where else could you build?

Historic preservation of a strip mall and parking lot

Benjamin Ross in Dead End retells the story of a historic preservation movement to save a Washington D.C. strip mall:

It fell to a suburb-like section of Washington, DC, to test the limits of historic preservation. In 1981, the new Metro reached Cleveland Park. Riders entered down a stairway alongside the parking lot of a fifty-year-old strip mall. The owners of Sam’s Park and Shop wanted to replace it with a larger, more urban structure. But the wealthy and influential homeowners who lived nearby liked things as they were – the neighborhood had led the successful fight against freeways two decades earlier – and they didn’t want any new construction. Tersh Boasberg, the local leader, told the Washington Post that “the central question is, ‘Can an urban neighborhood control what happens to it, or is development inevitable?”…

Sam’s Park and Shop, its neighbors thus proclaimed, deserved protection as a pioneering example of strip-mall architecture. But for the historic designation to succeed in blocking new construction, it wasn’t enough for the store building to remain intact. The parking lot had to be saved as well.

The residents’ base was not an easy one to make. In front of the original Park and Shop were a gas station and a car wash (an “automotive laundry” in the preservationists’ inflated prose), later town down to make room for more parked cars. Nearby stores were built in a hodgepodge of styles, without parking of their own…

It was a long way from landmarks to human and appealing places to shop, but in 1986 the fight for the parking lot ended in victory. (p.93)

A fascinating story that illustrates the power of NIMBYism and local control. Generally, those opposed to sprawl really dislike parking lots: they are only filled at certain hours of the day (usually during business hours), often are too large (though parking at a mass transit stop may be for the larger good), they are ugly, and their surfaces encourage water runoff. Yet, in the right setting, this parking lot was viewed as a better alternative than denser construction. (And the stated concerns about such construction might have been about traffic and safety but it often involves social class and status connected to denser development.)

Those who live in Walmart parking lots

Walmart has thousands of U.S. locations and there are people who live in some of these parking lots:

The company’s policy of allowing overnight stays in their parking lots is intended to boost sales, but has the tangential effect of creating a subculture around its locations (though they’re still at the mercy of local laws).

The two separate Walmart parking lots in Flagstaff, Arizona are specifically known for their long-term residents, and this past summer photographer Nolan Conway spent several days making a series of portraits of both the overnighters and the people who call these asphalt grids a temporary home…

Sometimes managers will say no to campers because space is limited. Conway says he’s unsure what the exact rules were for the Flagstaff Walmart parking lots but there were stories of the police coming and telling all the long-term campers to leave.

Conway says he first tried to make the Walmart portraits in another city during the winter but was routinely turned down. In Flagstaff people seemed more amenable, partly because it was summer and they were outside and more approachable, but also because these parking lots had so many long-term residents that they developed relationships and interacted on a regular basis. Their dogs would play together and residents shared meals and holidays.

Why should we be surprised – lots of other things happen at Walmart. It would also be interesting to hear: (1) what Walmart officially says about people living in the parking lots; (2) whether this actually does help boost sales; (3) is there anything terribly wrong if people live in parking lots that are often criticized for being wasted space much of the day?

Questions about a study of the top Chicago commuter suburbs

The Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development at DePaul just released a new study that identifies the “top [20] transit suburbs of metropolitan Chicago.” Here is the top 10, starting with the top one: LaGrange, Wilmette, Arlington Heights, Glenview, Elmhurst, Wheaton, Downers Grove, Naperville, Des Plaines, and Mount Prospect. Here is the criteria used to identify these suburbs:

The DePaul University team considered 45 measurable factors to rank the best transit suburbs based on their:

1. Station buildings and platforms;

2. Station grounds and parking;

3. Walkable downtown amenities adjacent to the station; and

4. Degree of community connectivity to public transportation, as measured by the use of commuter rail services.

A couple of things strike me as interesting:

1. These tend to be wealthier suburbs but not the wealthiest. On one hand, this seems strange as living in a nicer place doesn’t necessarily translate into nicer mass transit facilities (particularly if more people can afford to drive). On the other hand, having a thriving, walkable downtown nearby is probably linked to having the money to make that happen.

2. There are several other important factors that influence which suburbs made the list:

Communities in the northern and northwestern parts of the region tended to outperform those in the southern parts, with much of the differences due to their published Walk Scores. Similarly, communities on the outer periphery of the region tend to have lower scores due to the tendency for the density of development to decline as one moves farther from downtown Chicago. As a result, both Walk Scores and connectivity to transit tended to be lower in far-out suburbs than closer-in ones.

It might be more interesting here to pick out suburbs that buck these trends and have truly put a premium on attractive transportation options. For example, can a suburb 35 miles out of Chicago put together a mass transit facilities that truly draw new residents or does the distance simply matter too much?

3. I’m not sure why they didn’t include “city suburbs.” Here is the explanation from the full report (p.11 of the PDF):

All suburbs with stations on metropolitan Chicago’s commuter-rail system, whether they are located in Illinois or Indiana, are considered for analysis except those classified as city suburbs, such as Evanston, Forest Park, and Oak Park, which have CTA rapid transit service to their downtown districts. Gary, Hammond, and Whiting, Indiana, also are generally considered cities or city suburbs rather than conventional suburbs, because all of these communities have distinct urban qualities. To assure meaningful and fair comparisons, these communities were not included in the study.

Hammond is not a “conventional suburb”? CTA service isn’t a plus over Metra commuter rail service?

4. The included suburbs had to meet three criteria (p.11 of the PDF):

1) commuter-rail service available seven days a week, with at least 14 inbound departures on weekdays, including some express trains;
2) at least 150 people who walk or bike to the train daily; and
3) a Walk Score of at least 65 on a 100-point scale at its primary downtown station (putting it near the middle of the category, described as “somewhat walkable”).

This is fairly strict criteria so not that many Chicago suburbs qualified for the study (p.11 of the PDF):

Twenty-five communities, all on the Metra system, met these three criteria (Figure 2). All were adjacent to downtown districts that support a transit-oriented lifestyle and tend to have a transit culture that many find appealing. Numerous communities, such as Buffalo Grove, Lockport, and Orland Park, were not eligible because they do not currently meet the first criteria, relating to train frequency. Some smaller suburbs, such as Flossmoor, Kenilworth and Glencoe, while heavily oriented toward transit, lack diversified downtown amenities and the services of larger stations, and therefore did not have published Walk Scores above the minimum threshold of 65.

I can imagine what might happen: all suburbs in the top 20 are going to proclaim that they are a top 20 commuter suburb! But it was only out 25…

5. There are some other intriguing methodological bits here. Stations earned points for having coffee available or displaying railroad heritage. Parking lot lighting was measured this way (p.24 of the PDF):

The illumination of the parking lot was evaluated using a standard light meter. Readings were collected during the late-evening hours between June 23 and July 5, 2012 at three locations in the main parking lots:
1) locations directly under light poles (which tend to be the best illuminated parts of the lots);
2) locations midway between the light poles (which tend to be among the most poorly illuminated parts of the lot); and
3) tangential locations, 20 and 25 feet perpendicular to the alignment of light poles and directly adjacent to the poles (in some cases, these areas having lighting provided from lamps on adjacent streets).

At least three readings were collected for category 1 and at least two readings were collected for categories two and three.

There is no widely accepted standard on parking lot lighting that balances aesthetics and security. Research suggests, however, that lighting of 35 or more lumens is preferable, but at a minimum, 10 lumens is necessary for proper pedestrian activity and safety. Scores of parking lot illuminate were based on a relative scale, as noted below. In effect, the scales grades on a “curve”, resulting in a relatively equal distribution of high and low scores for each category. In several instances, Category 3 readings were not possible due to the configuration of the parking lot. In these instances, final scores were determined by averaging the Category 1 and 2 scores.

I don’t see any evidence that commuters themselves were asked about the amenities though there was some direct observation. Why not also get information directly from those who consistently use the facilities?

Overall, I’m not sure how useful this study really is. I can see how it might be utilized by some interested parties including people in real estate and planners but I don’t know that it really captures enough of the full commuting experience available to suburbanites in the Chicago suburbs.

Ruminating on the American parking lot

Here is part of a review of a new book that discusses better ways to design large-scale parking lots:

Mr. Ben-Joseph does offer some parking-lot success stories, few that there are. He introduces us to the Herman Miller factory in Cherokee County, Ga., whose segmented, 550-car lot is sympathetically integrated into the surrounding woodscape. He also approvingly notes the canopied car plaza in front of the Dia:Beacon Museum in Beacon, N.Y. (a collaboration between American artist Robert Irwin and the architecture firm OpenOffice), where the angled planters separating the parking spaces point the way to the museum entrance. Renzo Piano, redesigning the old Fiat Lingotto factory in Turin, Italy, took a similar approach, creating dense and splendid colonnades of trees…

Mr. Ben-Joseph is also guilty of sociological overreach. “Parking lots are a central part of our social and cultural life,” he writes, calling them “a modern-day common.” Wait, what? They are? Yes, teenagers gather in parking lots for one rite of adolescence or another: fighting, racing, dancing. True, community farmers markets spring up over the weekend in business and municipal parking lots; tailgating is a ritualized feasting before sporting events; RV drivers form impromptu villages in Wal-Mart parking lots, a practice known as “boondocking.”

But these interactions happen despite the forbidding nature of open parking lots, not because of them. I find parking lots to be intensely anti-social. I do not engage with strangers on my way to or from the car, and because these tracts are typically shelterless, there is no architectural cue as to where to congregate even if you wanted to. One can’t let go of a child’s hand in a parking lot for even a second. If you’re in a car, a parking lot is an obstacle course to negotiate. If you’re on foot, it’s a place to escape unscathed.

Surface parking lots don’t have to be the minimalist slabs of nowhere-ness we’ve grown accustomed to, Mr. Ben-Joseph suggests. Maybe. And yet there are few signs that this aspect of our infrastructure will get much better anytime soon. For now, I was glad to reach my car and drive away.

I think you could make a case that parking lots really do matter beyond what kind of social activity takes place in them. Thinking more broadly, parking lots represent the American love affair with the car and development based around driving. The zoning laws about the required number of parking spots suggest that one of the worst things we can imagine in everyday life is the lack of an easily available parking space. Shopping malls and big box stores and fast food restaurants are dependent on these giant lots. In cities, parking lots are often profitable holding operations until the land is profitable enough to justify a large development. Overall, the big parking lot is emblematic of a whole lifestyle built around cars and trucks that took over America starting in the 1920s.

Emanuel floats $2 congestion tax, parking lots fight back

Chicago’s Mayor Emanuel this week floated the idea of imposing a $2 congestion fee for commuter parking and parking lot operators are not happy:

Parking industry executives said the mayor’s strategy, which City Hall officials said is intended to reduce traffic gridlock in the central business district and River North and encourage increased public transit ridership and investment, fails to address congestion issues across the Chicago region. They said Emanuel’s plan would create more problems than it would solve.

“We think highlighting parking taxes as a fix to a regional problem is missing the point,” said Marshall Peck, chief executive officer of InterPark, a major owner-operator of parking properties downtown. “The congestion of Chicago is primarily on the highways. Once you get off the highways in the morning, traffic is really not problematic.”

Many commuters and numerous traffic studies, however, would challenge the suggestion that downtown traffic flows well.

InterPark and other members of the Parking Industry Labor Management Committee have posted placards in their facilities showing the current taxes and how the top tax would increase 67 percent, from $3 to $5, under Emanuel’s plan. The companies are also distributing fliers to their customers encouraging city residents to tell their aldermen to vote against the proposed new fee.

There are some interesting ideas floating around here:

1. While a number of cities have looked into congestion taxes, they are still not widespread. In an American context, I presume this is due to their unpopularity.

2. This is just one possible idea among many others the City of Chicago is looking at in order to increase revenue.

3. Having parking lot operators suggest we need more regional solutions to traffic is laughable. The whole system as it is currently set up in most American regions privileges automobile traffic. So they want more people not to drive, potentially reducing their business? Additionally, many regions, such as Chicago, don’t really have metropolitan bodies that can enforce metropolitan solutions to congestion. To solve the problem in the Chicago region, the RTA, CTA, Metra, City of Chicago, State of Illinois, and dozens of municipalities would have to be involved and agreeable.

4. A number of people have argued that parking is way too cheap and this encourages driving. Congestion taxes then do two things: (1) raise revenue (2) reduce traffic by discouraging driving.

5. The parking industry is an interesting one as the long-term prospects for many surface lots is to make money while the company waits for a company to come along and make an expensive offer for the land.

6. Just how much are motorists willing to support the parking lot operators? Would companies and businesspeople really leave the city over a $2 charge?

An intriguing question: just how many parking spots are in the United States?

The Infrastructurist reports on a new academic study that considers the full environmental impact of parking. But in order to provide an answer to this query, the researchers had to first consider another question: just how many parking spots are there in the United States?

Turns out that’s no easy task; in fact, according to the authors, no such “nationwide inventory” has ever been done. “It’s kind of like dark matter in the universe,” Donald Shoup, the so-called “prophet of parking” (and not part of the study), told Inside Science. “We know it’s there, but we don’t have any idea how much there is.” When the Berkeley researchers crunched the numbers, they came up with five scenarios of available U.S. parking that ranged from 105 million spots to 2 billion. Give or take, I guess.

The most likely estimate points to roughly 800 million spaces across the country, and the construction and maintenance of those spaces do, in fact, take a large cumulative toll on the environment. When parking spots are taken into account, an average car’s per-mile carbon emissions go up as much as 10 percent, the authors conclude. They also report that, over the course of a car’s lifetime, emissions of sulfur dioxide and soot rise 24 percent and 89 percent, respectively, once parking is properly considered.

Those are just part of a broad “suite of impacts” that includes previously studied costs like the “heat island effect” — the term for when dark pavement raises the temperature of a city, leading to additional energy demands for cooling. And atmospheric costs are only part of the suite. According to the paper’s lead author, Mikhail Chester, there may be a larger infrastructure for parking than for roadways. If that’s the case, there would seem to be another great cost to all this parking: the relative cost of useful space.

I like the comments from “the prophet of parking.” While there are not probably too many people in the world who would want to know the exact figure of parking spots in the United States, it is important to know this fact in order to understand the larger impact of parking.

Parking itself is an interesting phenomenon. In a culture that loves automobiles, parking spots are essential features are many places. There is much evidence that if Americans can’t find a relatively cheap parking spot, they are likely to go elsewhere. Some of the allure of the shopping mall, with the first ones constructed in the mid 1900s, was that the consumer had a vast area of free parking as opposed to the crowded streets of downtowns. Homes have to have their own form of parking spaces, to the point of many homes from recent decades leading with their garages (and earning the nickname “snout houses” for how this garage protrudes toward the street).

But of course, as this study points out, parking spots come at a cost.

A related question that I would be interested in knowing the answer to: how many parking spots are occupied at different times of the day? How many parking spots in America are constructed for the 8-5 work hours and then sit empty the rest of the day?