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Parking minimums force bulky buildings

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Development like this is impossible with parking minimums.

Parking minimums don’t just affect parking. They have a huge impact on the overall scale of buildings. Developers that have to include off-street parking have to build bigger and bulkier buildings in order to make their projects work.

It’s true that parking minimums encourage more driving, but the impacts on urban design and architecture may be even more important. The problem is that parking lots take up a lot of space, which makes development of small properties harder.

As a result, developers faced with parking minimums always try to build on the largest piece of land possible.

So if you like old style main streets, parking minimums are the enemy.

In places without parking minimums it’s more practical to build charming narrow buildings, like those that populate historic main streets all over the country. But where parking minimums exist, developers need larger properties big enough to fit parking lots.

Take a look at the buildings in these two pictures. They’re ostensibly similar. Both are 3 stories with a 4th floor attic. Both are primarily brick. Both have shops on the ground level, with other uses above. The key difference is that the left picture is a single building built by a single developer, while the right picture shows a block of narrow buildings on individual properties.

University Drive, Fairfax.
Image from Google.

King Street, Alexandria.
Image from BeyondDC.

Which one do you like better? Most people prefer the buildings in the right picture, because they’re built at a more human scale. Even though the building on the left is about the same height, it seems like a hulking monster because it’s so long.

One of the big reasons it’s so long: Parking.

Parking lots take up so much space and push developers towards larger buildings because parking lots aren’t just parking spaces. They’re really entire streets. Since you can’t get to a parking space unless it’s got a driving lane next to it, every row of parking spaces has to have an entire street built in front of it.

Unfortunately, it’s geometrically impossible to fit a two-way driving lane and a bunch of parking spaces behind a main street style 25-foot-wide building. Thus, developers need bigger properties, and old style main streets are essentially illegal to build.

Parking garages and underground parking are even worse. They don’t just need driving lanes, they need ramps too, not to mention elevators, stairs, and air ducts. So anyone who wants to build something that requires structured parking needs even more land.

This is one of the biggest reasons why contemporary development happens at the scale that it does. There are other reasons too, but this is a key one. In order to meet parking requirements imposed by city governments, developers have to scale-up their buildings to fit parking lots. In turn, those 19th Century main streets that everyone loves so much are effectively impractical and illegal to build.

January 11th, 2013 | Permalink | {num}Comments
Tags: architecture, roads/cars, transportation, urbandesign

  • jfruh

    It would literally be a cosmetic change, but what would prevent designing the University Drive store with a varied facade that makes it look like a series of rowhouses, which each retail unit getting its own facade? I mean, it would be a Potemkin village, but it might make a difference for the psychology of the street.

    • http://twitter.com/beyonddc BeyondDC

      Theoretically possible, yes. But it almost never actually happens. There are precious few successful examples.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=531782335 Gustav Svu00e4rd

    I agree with jfruh, it is possible to achieve most of the effect in pic 2 by doing a cosmetic change. Not that hard, it’s just a matter of what you actually want to build. Sadly, pic 1 is very much what some want to create. It has a few nods to traditional urbanism without going all the way, ‘cuz doing actual traditional urbanity would be rejecting modernism too hard.

  • http://jacquesofalltrades.tumblr.com Jacques of all trades

    One factor that helps Old Town Alexandria manage the traffic, though, is a series of municipal garages. They can be designed very well (as in Old Town, or in Williamsburg, VA), or quite poorly, such as the ones that seem to take over Bethesda. But either way, they–in addition to transit– can help free up building conditions, as well as limit the number of cars circling for street meters.

  • Cory

    Walmart and other big box stores have put “main street” facades on their stores when required by the local government even though they are still in the middle of a huge field of asphalt parking. It is the most hideous thing you will ever see and so out of place as to be laughable. Main streets were develped before parking was required because people walked or used public transportation and walked. Thre may be some good examples somewhere (I don’t know of any) but a fake facade is a fake facade and building for cars is not the same as building for people.

  • Guest

    You say parking minimums encourage more driving, well the opposite is true. If your building doesn’t have parking, I just won’t go. Public transportation in the DC area is expensive, unreliable, and a lot slower than driving. If you want my business, I better be able to park. Judging from the amount of traffic on the roads and the number of people at work who don’t drive (99% do), you need to allocate more resources for parking, not less. You will lose business otherwise.

    • http://twitter.com/beyonddc BeyondDC

      It sounds like you’ve never spent much time in the central city. That isn’t how it works there.nnRegardless, eliminating parking minimums would not make it illegal for developers to build parking if they wanted to. It would only end the dubious practice of the government forcing developers to build more than they think are necessary. Any business owner who thinks they need parking would still be allowed to build it.



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