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#1: No More Surface Parking Lots!

Does this #1 come as a surprise to you? I should think not. Really, what could be more anti-urban than surface parking lots? Those of you who have been reading DenverInfill for many years now knew this was going to be #1 in the Top 10 list, right?

As I’ve said many times before, think about the cities that people choose to travel to solely for the urban experience (museums, shopping, culture, history, architecture, etc.): New York, San Francisco, Paris, London, etc.—no surface parking lots! There seems to be a direct correlation between the appeal of a place as an urban destination and the lack of surface parking lots at that place. As a tourist destination, Downtown Denver is doing pretty well considering the number of surface lots we still have. Over the past twenty years, as surface lots have been replaced by shops, hotels, offices, and condos, we’ve seen Downtown Denver’s appeal as a destination in its own right improve commensurately. To reach true urban excellence, we must eliminate all surface parking lots in Downtown Denver.

Unlike some of the other items on the Top 10 list, the city alone cannot accomplish this goal of surface parking lot eradication. Demand for the uses that would occupy new buildings built in place of surface lots must first exist, and the private sector must then respond to that demand by implementing the appropriate supply of vertical development. Consequently, since we’re at the mercy of the free market, it’s going to take a while—many decades—before we get rid of all of our surface lots in Downtown. But one thing that the city can do that it currently isn’t, is proactively readying parking lot sites for eventual development through land assemblage. One of the biggest barriers we have in Downtown to replacing parking lots with new buildings is the fractured ownership of so many parking lot sites. The problem is particularly prevalent in the Arapahoe Square and Civic Center districts. Take, for example, Blocks 045-E and 046-E in Civic Center:


On Block 046-E, the only building on the block that’s new is the 1200 Delaware townhome project, visible in the aerial under construction at the corner of 12th and Delaware. Everything else on the block could be scraped. So, excluding 1200 Delaware, on the west half of the block, there are 10 parcels owned by 8 different owners. On the east half of the block, there are 8 parcels owned by 4 different owners, with only one owner common to both halves. That means that to assemble all of Block 046-E except for the 1200 Delaware project, one would have to negotiate the purchase of land from 11 different owners.

On Block 045-E, the only building on the block that’s not expendable is the relatively new Balustrade Condos at the corner of 12th and Cherokee. Everything else on the block could go. Excluding the Balustrade then, on the west half of the block, there are 7 parcels owned by 6 different owners, and on the east half of the block, there are 8 parcels owned by 5 different owners; once again, only one of those owners common to both halves. For this block, you’d have to negotiate with 10 different owners.

So, here we have two blocks in a prime location, just steps from the Art Museum and the Civic Center’s other cultural amenities, that should be developed into a nice mix of mid-rise housing projects featuring ground-floor retail and restaurant spaces. But what developer in his or her right mind would want to tackle assembling even a portion of these blocks? Several of the parcels are owned by “family trusts” or by families known for their recalcitrance, and once the word got out that developers were trying to assemble the block, everyone would double or triple their asking price, rendering the effort unfeasible. It’s unlikely we’ll see anything of appropriate density built on either of these blocks any time soon unless the city gets serious about land assemblages in the Downtown area.

Anyway, most new Downtown projects typically include structured or underground parking for themselves, and perhaps some parking for the general public. Public parking garages can pick up some of the slack, with transit hopefully serving as the main means of moving people in and out of Downtown. But as surface parking lots are removed, parking your car Downtown will become more difficult–and that’s just fine with me. Time for a few quotes:

Anyplace worth its salt has a “parking problem.” -James Castle, public policy consultant

The car is not the enemy, nor is the elimination of cars the solution. It is our societal bias toward cars that must be questioned. – Anne Vernez Moudon, University of Washington professor of urban design

Anything you do to make a city more friendly to cars makes it less friendly to people. – Enrique Penalosa, New York University urban scholar

And finally, this from Dan Malouff, the mastermind behind BeyondDC and a friend and urban planner who I respect:

Downtowns will never be able to out-suburb the suburbs. It will never be able to play the suburban game of drive-up-and-park better than actual suburbs. Since downtown will never be able to make parking as easy as the suburbs, “easy parking” will never be the reason people choose to go downtown. Instead, people will choose to go downtown based on something downtown has that the suburbs don’t. The one thing downtown has that the suburbs don’t is quality urbanism (i.e. “walkability”). Walkability, therefore, is downtown’s primary competitive advantage over the suburbs. Since walkability suffers when land is used for parking, it stands to reason that more parking would HARM downtown Denver, because more parking would dilute downtown’s walkability, and walkability is the only reason to go downtown instead of to the suburbs. Put simply, easier downtown parking would make downtown more like the suburbs, which would be counterproductive because the reason people go downtown in the first place is because it ISN’T like the suburbs.

Nobody likes to walk next to a surface parking lot. They’re ugly and boring and they diminish the pedestrian experience. Eliminating surface parking lots gives us two bangs for our buck: we remove something that is a deterrent to walkability, and we add something that (hopefully) makes the pedestrian experience engaging and memorable.

Anyway, that’s it, folks! I hope you enjoyed the Top 10 countdown, and thanks for all the great comments—keep them coming. Here’s to a better Downtown Denver!

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17 Comments

  1. dwilson says:

    There is actually something very real the city can do about our surface lot problem: draconian enforcement on the owners. The city already applies this draconian enforcement on people parking on the street, handing out tickets for expired meters, missing front license plates, and expired emissions stickers. The lot owners are also (rightfully) vigilante about ticketing people who do not pay for parking in their lots. But with surface lot owner power, comes great land owner responsibility.
    The city needs to mercilessly enforce codes on these lots for the likes of graffiti, snow removal, landscape maintenance, and any other enforceable infractions. They do these things already to the little guy coming downtown to support its economy, so doing it to the landowners is just as fair.
    For a case in point, see the surface lot on the eastern half of the block bounded by 19th, Grant, 20th, and Logan. This lot is fenced in and no longer functions for parking. It has had weeds, trash, abandoned cars, and snow on the sidewalks since it changed ownership a few years back. The incentives for the owner is simply to hold on to it for a better day, while spending as little as possible for upkeep. Once that upkeep starts costing lot owners a few thousand a month, plus endless headaches, management, and clerical minutiae, one of two things will happen: they will sell to developers, or the lots will be less of an eyesore until that time comes.
    These tools are at the cities disposal, with the potential to create revenue and promote development. All it takes is a mastery of the rules.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Even if the city can't do much to encourage land assemblage, why can't it pass laws to force parking lot owners to at least maintain their properties? It should be a requirement that lots feature some type of landscaping, and that they do away with pedestrian-blocking wire ropes and stanchions. And let's not forget forcing them to shovel sidewalks and other rights of way after snowfalls.
    I dislike surface parking lots as well, but if we are going to have them (and let's face it, as Ken states, it will be decades before they are eradicated in downtown Denver), let's at least make them as presentable as possible (assuming that "presentable parking lot" isn't a contradiction in terms).

  3. The Dirt says:

    @dwilson: the parking lot that you're talking about was supposed to be developed into this: http://www.denverinfill.com/images/blog/2007-07/2007-07-17_1915_logan.jpg

    So, as far as I know it is owned by a developer, despite the building rendering looking like it was done on a napkin.

    @Anon 4:23: I would agree with you about dressing up parking lots if if this further increases the burden on the land owner and forces them to sell to developers.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Though I understand that it's a cost/profit issue that makes a developer desire to assemble large parcels of land for large scale residential development – as the highlighted Civic Center lots are outside the prime downtown area and edge the more less dense Capitol Hill and Baker nieghborhoods, I think it would be interesting to see smaller scale independent development of 4 to 8 unit townhome and condo structures on those lots, similar to what we're seeing in the inner Highland neighborhood where sizable condos are being built on small 2-4 lot parcels. Eventually as the density of the center city expands outward, it will only make sense for those independent owners to either sell or develop, and smaller scale development would still boost density, but add a bit of independent flair and enhance walkability. I'm not saying that I don't like many of the massive condo structures built in the Civic Center area and elsewhere in Downtown, but really, wouldn't it be more interesting to walk past 10 different condo buildings on a block instead of one huge single design building?

  5. Dirk Gently says:

    GREAT suggestion about being draconian about upkeep!

    Anon 8:46: pretty much every neighborhood surrounding Downtown EXCEPT Curtis Park/Golden Triangle has the sort of smaller scale condos you're talking about (where it's not legacy Denver squares). I like the high rises going in there, which could give Denver more of an authentic "big city" look and helps increase density in the area. This sort of density could also ensure that Downtown events/venues are not only well supported but could be expanded (Bovine Metropolis, I'm looking at you).

    Anyway, great list Ken, thanks for doing this.

  6. Scott Bennett says:

    So on the blocks you posted in the photo, how does the land ownership relate to the parking lot operation? It's 11 owners, but it looks like maybe 2 or 3 parking lots spanning all those parcels. Can someone who owns a lot in the middle of that block sell it, or is there some kind of contract with the parking company that would prevent that? And if I buy one of those lots, can I build a house right in the middle of their parking lot?

    That's a really depressing part of town. Nobody even uses those lots. I'm sure glad they "renewed" them by tearing down all the small retail and light industrial buildings that must have previously lived there. I mean, who would want a bunch of affordable retail space right near the art museum?

  7. The Artistic Mercenary™ says:

    I was waiting until you finished the Top 10 to comment: Great job! I agree with everything…maybe not every single word, but definitely every single idea.

    The question I have is what's being done about it? Realistically what can the city do in the short term, and in planning for the long term, right now that would help?

    For example, I would love to eliminate lanes from streets and make more streets two ways, but how likely is that to happen? My guess is not very.

    I love the list and I agree with it wholeheartedly, I just worry that for Denver it's more a wish list than a to-do list.

  8. Ken says:

    Anonymous 8:46– The problem with smaller 4-8 unit townhomes is that it's just not enough density for the location. We need to add 20,000 more units to Downtown before we'll have the critical mass to make Downtown feel like a true big city. The buildings on those blocks (and others around them) should be mid-rises, which require underground or structured parking, which requires larger land assemblages.

  9. Anonymous says:

    Ken I know your intent wasn't to rank these, however I am going to give my personal rankings on recommendations….would be nice if we can set up a mechanism to tally overall rankings a la college football style.

    1)#1 No More Surface Parking Lots
    2)#5 More Grocery Stores
    3)#6 Downtown Department Store
    4)#9 More Trees
    5)#7 Street Cars (free?)
    6)#10 Downtown Recycling Program (and city service to multi-unit homes)
    7)#8 Street Performers
    No Vote/Last 2 on #2/3 Altering Streets

    - William Wallace

    7)

  10. Gabe says:

    Wait, you want to bulldoze the Dozens Restaurant?? Horrors! Actually I'm half kidding there. The parking lots are hideous (but they do get plenty of use — during the day — at night it's sparse). My office looks over those lots and I'd love to see something — anything — in that corner of Civic Center/Golden Triangle. Please. Maybe a couple more good lunch spots on the ground floor of mid-rise condos?

  11. ed says:

    Speaking of surface parking lots, I may have missed something somewhere. It looks like there is some work being done at 20th and Lawrence (Block 079). Is there any publication of what they are doing there?

  12. Charles says:

    First of all, I'd like to say 'Bravo' for your Top 10 list. All are wonderful ideas to turn this city into the Denver of my dreams. I think Denver is listening.

    As for the horrible surface parking lots, let's not forget the Wild West shooting confrontations that they encourage in LoDo, complete with tumbleweeds. People would be more hesitant to bust caps if there were buildings around them, or some sign of civilization.

    Seriously though, if these owners were required to maintain their properties at some respectable level, they wouldn't be so casual about letting them fall into total disrepair. And maybe they wouldn't be so keen to sit on them for years and reject reasonable purchase offers.

    Some of the "nicer" lots downtown that are small and well-maintained with actual fencing and landscaping don't bother me as much (the lot at 16th and Wazee is okay). It's the neglected ones that make me feel like I'm walking through a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Like the Market St. side of Block 039. Before the project across the street started construction, you felt like Will Smith in "I Am Legend" when walking to Coors Field from the bus station at 16th and Market. It's very unsettling to walk around those things. They automatically make you think you're in a bad part of town (I'm looking at you, 19th and Lincoln).

    I'm a little wary of the anti-car attitude though. I absolutely despise surface lots as killers of density and a walkable city. But downtown is not much of a destination for anyone at this point. Not many people HAVE to come downtown for any reason now. In talking to many of my suburban friends, the reason they come downtown as much as they do is because Denver is easy to access via auto. Making it more difficult to do that would likely hinder the growth of the downtown core at this stage. Eventually, the goal is that people wouldn't have to drive to get downtown, but that's not a reality right now.

    There is a lack of decent public transit. If you're coming from the Tech Center, you can take the LRT. But if you want to come downtown from Golden, Westminster, Arvada, Broomfield, or Thorton, you're out of luck.

    When I lived in Boulder, I used the regional buses as much as possible, but sometimes it wasn't practical. And it was rarely pleasant. Waiting in line only to have to stand up for 40 minutes because there are no seats is not a great way to end a long day of work. If you want to take your family to a ballgame, are you really piling them all on the bus? You see lots of families on the LRT, but hardly ever on the bus.

    And have you ever tried to get a cab at midnight on a Saturday night downtown?? You have a better chance hitchhiking. No wonder we're plagued by DUI's.

    But until we have LRT lines coming downtown from other points around the Denver metro area, we shouldn't discourage cars too much. A good short term goal is to keep them on the periphery of downtown, and out of the core. Your proposed changes to the streets would definitely help this.

    At the very least, property owners should be discouraged from allowing their properties to fall into waste and neglect. They shouldn't be able to have cracked pavement, rusted out trashcans, and steel cables all over the place. And they should be required to plow and shovel in the winter.

    I will never get over the sting of hosting a friend from NYC and taking him around downtown a few years ago. He looked at the parking lot wasteland and asked if Denver's economy had fallen apart. It was terribly embarrassing. After being pummeled by a duststorm while walking across Wynkoop Plaza, I was forced to give up my attempts to convince him that Denver had anything going for it.

  13. Anonymous says:

    ken – love the list…my only complaint is that MANY of these issues would be naturally solved if we had one item – 30,000 new residintial units in the center. with greater density denver will:

    1) lose the parking lots
    2) attract a grocery store
    3) attract a dept. store
    4) support a farmer's markt
    5) result in more / better street performers
    6) result in more trees (added with new development)
    7) provide the necessary density and tax revenue base to support a new street car system.

    indeed, 70% of your very good ideas would be directly addressed if the city actively pursued development and created an incentive-laden environment to bring in 30k new dt units and residents.

  14. Ken says:

    ^ I completely agree!

  15. Will says:

    how many people roughly live in the downtown area now? and what about the general central denver? just wondering where we are at currently and what we need to get to density wise.

  16. joeindt says:

    I'm a little disappointed I wasn't quoted: "uh, parking lots suck and stuff. I don't like them."

    We should make a law saying if we have an empty parking lot, a billboard must also exist.

    Another idea: Define "highly desirable" zones. If a landowner has property in a particular zone (ie another 17th street( yes, you mr cook)) the property taxes on that parcel should be payed at rate of value based on as if a building actually existed there. So a land owner has his lot for sale at a zillion dollars, based on an assumption that zoning at R-4-X and full buildout may bring that much money. Then so be it. Pay taxes on R-4-X each year. I guarantee that the property will not be sitting around for very long. On the other side of the coin, the city should make give very generous tax incentives (even take a loss on taxes for a few years) for someone willing build in such zones. It really is in the city's ultimate best interest to have a built out downtown. "Land Banking" is not a good idea there.

  17. Anonymous says:

    actually, there are still surface lots in and around NYC. mostly on the west side of manhattan but they are there. and i know there is at least one in chinatown.