Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Parking War

When it comes to the bricks, nothing hurts an urban landscape more than surface parking lots. They scar the skyline, make walking undesirable, and inhibit adjacent development. These asphalt prairies become even more noticeable at times like today, when big snow storms leave piles of snow and ice surrounding these blighted blocks and absent management companies refuse to plow or shovel their sidewalks, or plow snow into neighboring properties, leaving neighbors the headache of cleaning up after nonexistent owners.

Like a virus, surface parking lots cause neighboring properties to decline, often leading to demolition and thus absorption into the growing parking lot making a decreasingly desirable neighborhood even less desirable, leading to more demolition and so on, until you end up with what can be found in countless locations throughout the city. Not only does this type of anti-development cause neighborhoods to decline, it encourages an auto-centric mentality that can't possibly be supported in a city as dense as Philadelphia.

With lots and garages in nearly every block in Center City, if not every block in Center City, people still complain about parking. In most dense cities with a highly populated urban core - Boston, New York, Chicago, San Francisco - residents and even commuters wouldn't complain about having to walk five blocks or so, but in Philadelphia, even many Center City residents complain about walking, feeling entitled to the convenience of driving to the gym or grocery store.

A small portion of Center City with lots outlined in red...and that doesn't even include parking garages.

In the hierarchy of urban development, I put the owners of surface parking lots several notches below the worst slum lords. These pariahs sit on property with low taxes, have virtually no overhead, and see almost completely raw profit. It's no wonder most new buildings are developed by razing old ones. Owners of surface parking lots are free to extort developers. They are sitting on property that is nothing but profit. No matter how little they make or how unappealing it is, there is no incentive for them to sell, ever. There is no property usage tax in the city to motivate owners of undeveloped Center City property develop or seek development. What makes it even worse, is many real estate owners will raze their derelict properties in anticipation of potential development, but when development never comes turn their space into a parking lot, which never ever goes away.

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