Los Angeles Magazine recently published a wonderful article about urban parking, starring Donald Shoup, a professor of urban planning at UCLA. There are so many good illustrations of the cost, both to the landowner and to the user, of urban parking in this article. It’s astonishing. Take this example from the Walt Disney Concert Hall:
…before [Disney Hall] could be raised on [former surface parking lot] K, a six-floor subterranean garage capable of holding 2,188 cars needed to be sunk below it at a cost of $110 million—money raised from county bonds. Parking spaces can be amazingly expensive to fabricate. In aboveground structures they cost as much as $40,000 apiece. Belowground, all that excavating and shoring may run a developer $140,000 per space.
While the cost of Disney Hall parking was considerably cheaper than the worst-case quoted here (the math works out to about $50,000 a space), $140,000 is a ludicrous amount of money for a single space. If the per-use cost of a space in a garage is $10, then you will need to have 14,000 cars use that space before it is paid off! That’s 38 years of paying off debt (not including interest) if the garage meets capacity exactly once every day of every year. It will of course take longer if capacity is not met every day.
And if you think that’s bad for the people who fund garages, the oversupply of parking around the hall makes things even worse for visitors. The places surrounding the music center are completely devoid of people:
Downtown already had an oversupply of garages and lots where music fans could leave their cars. “After a concert in San Francisco,” says Shoup, “the streets are full of people walking to their cars, eating in restaurants, stopping into bars and bookstores. In L.A.? The bar next door at Patina is a ghost town.”
Because parking lots dominate the landscape, Los Angeles’ music center is a world unto itself. Very few buildings of concern surround the development, which discourages visitors from straying outside the property, or even using on-property bars and restaurants. When people visit the hall at night, here’s what surrounds them:
- The Dorothy Chandler Pavillion and the Ahmanson Theater to the north. These venues are irrelevant unless one attends two performances in one night.
- County buildings to the northeast, which are completely vacant and dark in the evening.
- A spindly above-ground parking structure directly to the east. If you choose to walk about a quarter of a mile further in this direction, you’ll be greeted with a portal to the Metro subway. However, the walk is dark and surrounded by parking lots with sparse activity. And let’s not forget that the trip in the other direction, from the subway portal to the music center, is two long blocks uphill.
- The Colburn School of performing arts and the Museum of Contemporary Art to the southeast. The Coburn School has some performances at night, but like the Dorothy Chandler and Ahmanson, visitors to Disney Hall are unlikely to see two performances in one night.
- A dilapidated surface parking lot to the south.
- A landscaped interchange between Flower, Hope, and 2nd street to the southwest.
- A lackadaisical collection of office buildings and strip mall to the west, boasting such crowd pleasers as “Tutti Frutti” and “Subway”.
- The Department of Water and Power parking lot to the northwest. Vacant at night.
All parking and no night life. This is stunningly and embarassingly bad urban planning. Anyone who dares stray outside the music center will encounter dark, dangerous streets with no business or residential activity to provide natural surveillance. A deserted environment without a sufficient supply of honest bystanders going about their business fosters crime and other unseemly activities. That’s not exactly music to my ears.
The article contrasts the music center against the experience of Rick Cole, former mayor of Pasadena. Until the 1990s, many of the town’s high-density condo complexes had to meet parking quotas, which encouraged every developer to build a half-buried parking garage below the residences. Parking was abundant, yes, but this had the effect of hiding everyone’s front door within the garage structure, which reduced street activity and the natural surveillance that comes along with it to an abysmally low level.
Cole wanted to get more honest people back on the sidewalks. Exercising a plan that would make Jane Jacobs proud, he added parking meters to a part of town with low rents, dense structures, and the potential for high foot traffic—and abolished parking quotas. This had the effect of bringing money into the area where previously there was none. All proceeds from the meters went towards street and sidewalk improvement projects, and better policing. Because the people that used the area were the ones footing the bill for its upkeep, Old Pasadena is now one of the most vibrant—and safest—parts of town. Cole gives a fantastic quote about what he now thinks about parking lots:
For 50 years we’ve built [cities] around the parking lot—a ridiculous use of land, of money, and an intrusion into the intimacy of human scale. Now we’ve painted ourselves into a corner. The saving grace is that the first 5,000 years might come back again.”
It’s a shame that wisdom gained from Cole’s experience is not universally received. After all, as Los Angeles prepares to add the Farmer’s Field football stadium (and the garages that go with it) to the lifeless wasteland that is the convention center district, it will still be a very long time before planners realize that a sensible city cannot be achieved unless all its components are built for people—not parking.
Amazon page for The High Cost of Free Parking by Donald Shoup