New life for unused parking lots

Photo by Graham Anderson

 I look out the window each day to a sea of concrete. One full city block, 72 parking spaces, always empty. I’ve been studying at SFU Harbour Centre in Downtown Vancouver for the last few months. From our third floor classroom I see that the large parking garage next door is never close to full. Nearby lots are the same, with many floors of empty space, hundreds of empty parking stalls, even during peak weekday hours.

Vancouver Councilor Geoff Meggs confirms that half-empty lots are part of a larger trend in downtown parking. Easypark, the city-owned parking management company, has seen a dramatic 20% drop in revenues since the Canada Line was built, a trend Councilor Meggs attributes to changing travel patterns:

 

“It’s not just an economic downturn, it’s a fundamental shift because of increased investments in rapid transit,” says Meggs.

Jerry Dobrovolny, the city’s Director of Transportation, works out of a corner office in the Crossroads building at Cambie and Broadway. His desk overlooks False Creek, the downtown peninsula, the North Shore mountains, and the Cambie Bridge. From this perspective, he sees the impact of shifting travel patterns on a daily basis.

“I’ve never seen the bridge backed up,” he says.

Dobrovolny also notes the falling occupancy rates at downtown parkades, and adds: “That’s because of the success of the Canada Line.”

City statistics show that Vancouverites are increasingly choosing transportation alternatives like transit, cycling, and walking, with the number of people driving downtown decreasing every year for the last 15 years.

As we drive less, pollution diminishes, air quality for the region improves, and travel times for commuters decrease.

It also has created a plethora of empty and under-utilized parking space in the downtown core, about 7,000 empty spaces across downtown. The cumulative area of these parking stalls adds up to 10.5 hectares, more than double the footprint of BC Place, equivalent to nearly 3% of the land in the downtown area.

Councillor Meggs sees this as an “opportunity for transformation. It’s really like maintaining stables for horses or buggies right now, given that we see the shift coming with climate change.”

Meggs would like to see some parkades converted into “more sustainable, more future-oriented developments.”

“When you consider the amount of space in the city network that’s allocated for cars and their storage, while people continue to sleep on the sidewalks, we could do a lot more with that [space],” says Meggs.

Housing Solutions

One new development offering creative solutions to housing issues in Vancouver challenges conventional wisdom about parking.

At 60 West Cordova Street, the developer Westbank has partnered with Vancity and Gregory Henriquez architects to provide affordable ownership housing in downtown Vancouver. The condos start at $219,900, with priority for those who live or work in the downtown eastside.

The innovative project has reduced construction costs in part by building minimal parking for its residents.

The surface lot with its generally empty 50 vehicle spaces will be replaced with 108 units of affordable housing. 60 W Cordova took advantage of a new credit system that was designed to help Vancouver reach its ‘Greenest City’ goals. It allows developers to build less parking if they can provide reasonable alternatives, such as transit and carsharing, to occupants.

The result will be an increase in neighborhood density and a net decrease in parking supply.

According to Dobrovolny, this development has been made possible by recent policy changes that allow developers to build less parking.

Generally, the city asks developers to design buildings so that occupants’ parking needs are accommodated on site. But Vancouver’s current transportation plan has capped downtown parking at 1997 levels.

To maintain this level of supply as the downtown area grows, minimum parking requirements for new developments have been reduced over time.

“We get larger buildings with the same number of stalls or less stalls,” explains Dobrovolny. “The total doesn’t change.”

Development and the Market Response

The city’s approach generally trusts developers to understand their market and estimate the appropriate amount of parking. But they don’t always get it right, and that can result in excess parking supply.

 Dobrovolny points out that developers are managing a difficult trade-off.

“They save a lot of money by not putting in a parking stall,” says Dobrovolny. “But then they also have to look at… the marketability of the units”

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