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Parking spaces in urban areas targeted for redevelopment


There are so many parking spaces in the United States that we’ve lost count. Some say 800 million or a billion; other estimates are as high as 2 billion.

No matter the exact number, it’s far too many. There are only 250 million cars in the country.

State-by-state data is scarce, but it’s safe to assume Colorado has at least 10 million parking spaces. Denver has a couple million of those, give or take. Instead of an urban fabric, you end up with a checkerboard of asphalt heat islands.

Whereas the growth in the 1950s to the 1980s was largely dictated by car culture, the parking pendulum is swinging the other way. McGregor Square at Coors Field is one high-profile example of surface-lot redevelopment in the core of the city, with more to come at Empower Field at Mile High (where there’s more than 36 acres of parking) and Elitch Gardens (where the River Mile project will transform the amusement park and its copious surface lots into a new neighborhood).

But that’s just the high-profile projects. Drive around metro Denver or Colorado Springs, or just about any other city in Colorado – and the U.S. at large – and the infill opportunities for parking lots are all over the map.

“There’s really too much parking everywhere,” says Robert Steuteville, senior communications adviser for the Washington, D.C.-based Congress for the New Urbanism. Noting that there are far more parking spaces than people in the U.S., he adds, “Many of them aren’t used very much.”

The best solution is as simple as removing parking requirements from municipal building codes (or allowing street parking to count against requirements), but that’s a tall order when you consider there are about 90,000 local governments nationwide. “Changing code is for sure the way you can make the biggest impact,” Steuteville says. “That makes so many more things possible in terms of redevelopment.”

The time might be right, he adds, as tremors shake the existing paradigms in real estate: “Shopping malls, office parks, all these things are in decline. Redeveloping these sites is something that we’re going to be doing, and that involves redeveloping parking lots.”

RTD has about 80 lots at transit stations in metro Denver. “The biggest issue we have with developing our park-and-rides is we use them,” says Chessy Brady, RTD’s transit-oriented development (TOD) manager, noting that spaces usually cost developers about $25,000 per space. With that math, an apartment complex that replaces all of the lost spaces usually doesn’t pencil out from a budget perspective.

RTD’s best practice is to require developers to replace every lost space. The agency’s new equitable TOD policy “allows us to be flexible,” Brady says, by encouraging development of affordable housing with less stringent parking requirements.

Alameda Station is the only clear-cut example, but there are also projects at Olde Town Arvada Station and Sheridan Station on the Denver-Lakewood line that involved land swaps. RTD also has put out a request for proposals to redevelop some parking at Boulder Junction station in Boulder.

And it’s hard to balance different uses: Without a dedicated park-and-ride, it took several years for Alameda Station to recover lost ridership, as riders moved to nearby stations.

“The joy of the city is to be able to walk out your door and get the things you need without a substantial trip in an automobile,” says Stephen Dynia, principal of Dynia Architects of Denver and Jackson, Wyoming, and the mind behind numerous projects by Zeppelin Development in RiNo. “But cities Denver’s size have a problem: It’s hard to not have a car.”

Dynia calls surface parking “the most inhospitable landscape,” and noting that was the result of an urban redevelopment push that Denver began to embrace in the 1950s. “Postwar planning had a tendency to knock down buildings, even in the core of the city, under the auspices of various urban planning strategies,” Dynia says. “Denver ended up with a lot of missing teeth. So did most cities across the U.S. in the second half of the 20th century.”

By the 1990s, the “lack of continuity in the urban experience” catalyzed pushback. While zoning changes in the city have often lowered parking requirements, he adds, “Planning moves take generations to realize. One has seen the fabric of Denver get better, certainly over the last 10 years.”

In Dynia’s mind, it’s not that crazy of an idea to eliminate parking requirements altogether. “It just takes a shift in thinking, right?” he says. “Sprawl is not a good thing.”

One of his ideas involves turning an outdated suburban mall’s parking into a park. He says it makes a lot of sense if they pivot from pure retail to mixed uses that require less parking. “Find a mall that is defunct, that has no more life to it,” Dynia says. “You can imagine the parking requirement to be reduced to allow the parking to be turned into partial parkland.”

A potential project at Lakewood’s Lamar Station (formerly JCRS Plaza and best known as the home of Casa Bonita) crossed Dynia’s desk a few years back, but a plan to build along Colfax Avenue in the parking lot was met with pushback, so nothing materialized.

Dynia points to the Cinderella City redevelopment in Englewood as another good target to redevelop surplus parking, as well as “a swath of parking” that serves as overflow for Coors Field that he can see from his office window in RiNo. “It’s a massive piece of real estate that’s in the core of River North,” he observes. “I never see it full, even when there are games. What an opportunity for urban planning that would help knit together RiNo.”