We can build better big box parking lots

A reader in Grand Rapids, Michigan shared the following:

After almost being struck to death several times at our local Meijer parking lot I noticed WHY the Meijer parking lot is like a death trap as opposed to the Celebration Cinema.

His aggravation led him to make these two diagrams:

“Death Lot” – excessive drive-thru lanes, non-existent crosswalks and haphazard placement of a bus stop make this lot dangerous for everybody.


“Good Lot” – by dividing the surface with a tree lined foot path this adjacent parking lot feels safer.

[Aside: one of my first jobs was to retrieve carts from a parking lot very similar to the one in the top diagram. In the 19 years since I held that position, the parking lot has not changed very much.]

This inspired me to reconsider the future of the suburban parking lot. In my view, there are some good reasons for questioning our long term needs for these super-sized parking lots. In my view, parking lots of this magnitude deserve to be called into question for the following reasons:

  • They serve drivers to the exclusion of all other modes of transportation (this is apparent in the curvilinear driveways and lack of marked foot paths). This means that many people who cannot drive are effectively excluded.
  • They need a tremendous amount of open space and retention ponds to manage stormwater. This need for undeveloped green space increases the parking lot’s appetite for cheap land and makes walking even less pleasant.
  • They do not add value to the property (although it could be argued that they are needed to sustain the large retailers I am skeptical of this claim).
  • They do not benefit the human spirit. They are quickly forgotten and unremarkable.
  • They may be the subject of lawsuits if they fail to address safety issues (case in point from another Michigan retail chain).

Know your destination before you start your journey

While it might seem like these giant parking lots have nothing going for them, I believe they can (and should) be rehabilitated into useful places.  It’s tempting to address each gripe about the parking lot with a specific intervention – but, I believe the first step is to come up with a long range vision for the property’s development potential.

The vision for the property sets out a new value proposition for potential tenants and buyers. It should establish how people will use the property in thirty to fifty years in the future.  Changing a development pattern for a parcel of this size is a substantial undertaking – a coherent and compelling long term vision is essential to keep everyone on the same trajectory.

Even if none of that were important, these massive parking lots eventually will need substantial infrastructure upgrades. A long range plan can help property owners coordinate infrastructure improvements with other parking lot enhancements.

We can do better than this.

Rebuilding Spaces

The “death lot” in the diagram above measures approximately a quarter mile on each side.

Other (Driveways & Open Space)19.4

After looking at this “death lot” for a bit and thinking about the challenges noted, I came up with my vision for the property:

  • Build mixed use and residential buildings along perimeter of site. The residents living in these buildings will not need cars or parking spots to access the other stores and destinations nearby.
  • Subdivide site and reduce block sizes. By splitting the mega parcel into several coherent blocks, the site will benefit from improved connectivity. When a network of streets crisscross an area it is less vulnerable to traffic congestion. These smaller blocks should make logical connections to adjacent properties.
  • Split the big box store into two buildings connected by an arcade. This increases the permeability of the large structure to pedestrians and it will allow the store to connect to neighborhoods to the west.
  • Replace most surface parking with structured parking. (It is possible that driverless cars will substantially reduce our demand for parking soon so it may be advisable to build a structure that can be converted into housing.)
  • Install heavy-duty green infrastructure. The current system creates a useless moat of “green space” that nobody loves. Mature trees, permeable surfaces, and thirsty greenery are essential components to soak up rainwater on the site.
  • Provide useful green space for humans. The intentional provision of squares and parks can dramatically improve the quality of shared spaces.
  • Provide private gathering spaces on rooftops. These spaces can use solar awnings to provide shade and generate power.
  • Eliminate all drive-thru facilities – this improves safety for pedestrians and reduces vehicle congestion. (Besides, in a few years drones will deliver everything right to your door, eliminating the need for these facilities.)
  • Install hot water lines under foot paths and driveways to reduce need for snow plowing.

Here’s the rub: it takes a tremendous amount of money to accomplish this scale of redevelopment. Most developers will need to find ways to incrementally improve the value of the property before they can justify this kind of investment.

So what can be done in the meantime?

Saving a Lot

Truthfully, there is no reason for parking lots to be terrible and dangerous. We have all the tools and knowledge necessary to make these spaces safer and more valuable. The emerging practice of tactical urbanism shows how people can rehabilitate spaces. This practice combined with a long range development plan has the power to allow transform any enormous parking lot into a place that’s welcoming – and eventually desirable in its own right.

Tactical interventions to the “death lot” combined with a few strategic investments can improve safety and make the site more pleasant.

  • Redefine the vehicle and pedestrian circulation patterns.
    • Enhance the prominence of the primary pedestrian circulation routes. Ideally, these paths should be slightly elevated from the parking lot and buffered by planters.
    • Treat the most valuable parking spaces like the most valuable parking spaces. Install angled parking along the primary frontage of the building. This will slow down vehicle speeds and enhance pedestrian safety for people entering and exiting the store.
    • Replace the pharmacy drive thru lane with a designated pharmacy pick up area. (Alternatively, the store could pioneer a same-day pharmacy delivery service to customers who rely on this drive thru.)
    • Install traffic calming measures where appropriate such as raised intersections, narrower vehicle lanes, narrower curb radii, &c.
    • Build a bus terminal complete with benches, ticket vending machines and awnings. This should be connected to the primary pedestrian circulation path.
    • Install bicycle parking near the door and preferably under an awning. Ideally, the bike parking should accommodate cargo bicycles.
    • Make sure that electric vehicle charging stations are well marked. The charging equipment should be installed in a way that does not impede pedestrians.
  • Allow temporary markets to occupy parking lot space during times when the lot is below capacity. These markets could include food trucks, local art shows, farmers markets, skate parks, and other temporary events. These activities illustrate what other sorts of land uses are viable on the property.
  • Begin strategically installing green infrastructure and growing thirsty plants to reduce the need for vast amounts of “green space” at the perimeter of the property.

There’s A Lot on the Line

Compact infill development that accommodates population growth on our existing urban footprint is essential for the future of North American cities. We simply cannot afford to grow using the conventional, auto-centric patterns established in the late 20th century.

Parking lots make up a substantial amount of our urban land coverage. They may represent the next great frontier of urban redevelopment. In previous decades, smart developers have rehabilitated derelict textile mills and warehouses that had permanently lost value. With the dawn of autonomous vehicles fast approaching, the value of these enormous over-sized parking lots may be about to plummet.