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 Over the past twenty years, as surface lots have been replaced by shops, hotels, offices, and condos, we’ve seen Downtown Denver’s appeal as a destination in its own right improve commensurately.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!