They’re in your hometown, they’re huge, and they’re extremely dangerous. No, they aren’t monsters or shadowy organized crime syndicates, they’re parking lots. Across the country, there are as many as two billion parking spaces occupying vast swathes of our cities, suburbs and countrysides. That may seem like a lot, but according to a 2018 study, many American cities are drastically oversupplied with parking. Philadelphia has 3.7 spaces per household, while Des Moines has 19.4 per household. From the 2014-2018 American Community Survey, there are around 120 million households in the country, making that two billion figure only reflect 16.7 spots per household. All the sudden not so crazy.
The danger of parking lots stems from a couple of areas. First of all, one in five traffic accidents happens in a parking lot. And second, parking lots are associated with a range of negative environmental and health impacts. The materials and energy needed to build them, the other property types they displace, the cars they incentivize and the heat they reflect are just a handful of these negative externalities.
Not only are parking lots dangerous, there is too much parking for most specific situations. Malls are oversupplied with parking, as are office parks, amusement parks, and other types of shopping centers. And that was before the outbreak! Expansive, empty parking lots by themselves do nothing to add value to a property, since they generate no income and in fact over time eventually depreciate, requiring sealing, pothole repair, or repaving.
And while they may appear like blank canvases, parking lots take more effort to redevelop, in many cases, than truly vacant land. Oftentimes the amount of spaces for a property are specified in the building’s permits which require a variance to be filed. Many lots are too small, awkwardly shaped or don’t have the proper setbacks to be developed even if the parking requirements get scaled back. Even if suitable arrangements can be made, project costs will be swollen by the cost of tearing up the lot in order to put a foundation down.
Communities do have a few options for parking lots, though. They can be used for events or, as we have seen happen in downtowns all over the world due to the pandemic, can be used as seating for local restaurants or food trucks. In a non-COVID world, these solutions can be helpful for the landlord’s “other income” line item but are inherently periodic and consequently seldom amount to much more than that.
Some parking lot owners are exploring novel uses that are more creative. For instance, outdoor theaters are popping up in parking lots across the country. Few probably foresaw the resurrection of the old-school drive-in in 2020, but it’s a bit of good news amidst the bleakness of the year, a safe, distancing-friendly social outlet and entertainment venue when indoor fun is hard to come by. The trend seems not to be slowing down; Walmart is converting 160 parking lots into Walmart Drive-In locations.
Another opportunity comes by way of urban agriculture. Parking lots, once the asphalt is peeled away, can represent an amazing source of well-located real estate in high-density, high-demand parts of cities. Sticking a farm there can be cost effective, since construction costs after the asphalt removal are minimal, and rewarding for both local communities and the environment.
As an alternative to converting parking lots into traditional buildings, warehouses are also popping up on underused parking lots. According to Pauline Hale, Senior Manager at Altus Group, “Sam’s Clubs, Walmarts, Amazon, and grocers are actually building temporary space on some of these parking lots just to hold product. It’s pop-up industrial.” In a similar approach, some nonprofits are using parking lots as food distribution sites. This is not new, but it is certainly increasing in frequency given the impacts of COVID-19. The outdoor environment allows for safer food pickup than traditional food bank locations. And in perhaps the apotheosis of the trend, DHL recently opened a consumer shipping pop-up store in a mall parking lot in Maryland.
Moving forward, we will continue to see novel solutions explored for parking lots. San Diego’s mayor recently signed an executive order that will allow businesses like gyms and salons to begin plying their trades outdoors, in parking lots. This type of adaptation will keep patrons safer while they get the services they need, and it will provide a new use case for the empty parking lots clogging up America’s streets and towns.
Outdoor arrangements are not a permanent solution for most areas—few places have the kind of year round temperate weather like they do in San Diego. Many services will have to return indoors when things are safer, but we might see a different regulatory world after the pandemic in favor of more outdoor commercial activity and less parking.
For lasting change to happen we need to think about how much parking we really need. On one hand, giving people the ability to park next to an establishment can help bring in customers from out of the area—not to mention can be the only option for people with mobility limitations. On the other hand, reducing parking for buildings can create additional usable space as well as make our cities healthier and more sustainable. Obviously, redeveloping parking lots as affordable housing or mixed-use space would certainly be a best-case scenario, but simply turning them into active, destination-style spaces will immediately convert billions of square feet of slowly depreciating eyesores into spaces for people to use and enjoy. We are all reexamining our relationship with a lot of things during this life changing outbreak, and it looks like we will have to add parking to that long list.