Pulse paradise, or put up a parking lot?

I want you to think of your favorite place you’ve ever visited in a city. Picture it in your mind. Maybe a public square? A park? People walking around, a restaurant with tables and chairs on the street? A lot of “life” is happening, right? Look around and what do you see? Buildings of two to five stories, maybe taller? A frequent transit line nearby? Wide sidewalks? There are all kinds of things that make this place great, but I’m pretty sure you didn’t picture a giant parking deck!

That’s why it was so disappointing to hear about a 790-space parking garage being built next to the new Whole Foods at Hermitage and Broad. Right next to the Fan, this area is very walkable, bikeable, and next to a brand new Pulse Bus Rapid Transit station that was built specifically for this development. There are a ton of ways to get here, so it seems odd to be building one of the largest parking decks in the city!

Contrary to what you may have heard, Richmond already has a lot of parking. You can almost always find parking if you are willing to walk a block or two (about how far you might have to walk through a big-box retail parking lot in the suburbs). And the areas where the demand is highest are also the areas with the best transit and biking conditions: Downtown, Shockoe Bottom, the Fan, Carytown, Manchester, etc.

All those reds, yellows, browns and greens are parking: almost half our downtown!

But maybe, you say, parking in this area is really difficult? As part of the Pulse planning study, the City hired consultants to watch the corridor and count how many street parking spots are being used. Surprise, surprise: most of them sit empty.

A sea of blue: 86 parking spots, mostly unused all day.

The new Sauer development, of course, could bring more people to the area. But while the old plan was to build a 10-story apartment building as well as a six-story parking deck, the new plan includes only an office building, which is generally unoccupied after close-of-business. Using Google Maps, we can clearly see how much off-street parking there is during the day and how much of that parking sits unoccupied.

Look at all that parking, and look how little of it is used!

This Pulse-adjacent district is basically more parking than not, and almost entirely filled with one- to three-story buildings—and that’s not counting the four-story parking deck the Science Museum is about to build. How could this neighborhood need nearly 800 more parking spaces? You don’t ever want to check the zoning ordinance, but I did, and the minimum required parking spaces for this office tower is 132 spaces. When other mid-sized cities are significantly reducing or removing parking minimums altogether because of their harmful effects, building six times the required parking next to a Pulse station in a neighborhood full of mostly unused parking is not the way to design a good city.

Let me tell you about how parking hurts Richmond. It induces people to drive more instead of walk, bike, or take transit. It pushes things further apart and makes them harder to access, which also reduces our physical activity and our health. It induces people to live further out, hurting development in the city. It takes up a lot of space. It pushes aside other development, like this 10-story apartment tower, and makes them smaller and more expensive than they could be because of the built-in cost and space of required (but possibly unwanted!) parking. It costs the city money in lost property tax revenue. And it heats our air, which in particular hurts those people not able to drive around in an air-conditioned car.

And the worst part about this is that the City requires parking (p.239) usually well in excess of the market demand, when it should be limiting this development that’s harmful to our neighborhoods. 1st District Councilmember Addison even tried to reduce some of these parking minimums, but his legislation was withdrawn after four months of no movement by Council.

If we want to make our city better, we need to change how we look at parking. We need to stop building parking decks to the sky. We need to design our cities and public spaces for people, not the storage of their personal property.