“We need these extra parking spaces for holiday shoppers.”
This is the standard response from city planners or big box retailers when asked to explain why there is so much empty parking at newer shopping centers. While these parking lots sit empty nearly the entire year, apologists will invoke the holiday rush between Thanksgiving and Christmas as the driving force behind unnecessary asphalt moats. Sure, no one enjoys searching for parking when going on an eleventh-hour present run, but are all of these parking spots really used during peak shopping times? During my recent trip home, I took a drive over to Stockton’s newer commercial areas to see whether or not these extra acres are justified. What I found should make all Stocktonians question the city’s parking policies. Take a look.
This is the Wal-Mart parking lot in Park West Place on Sunday, December 22nd around 3:00pm. Inside, the store was packed with shoppers looking for last-minute gifts. But even with this rush, the parking lot was filled to just two thirds capacity. But Wal-Mart is only one store, perhaps parking lots serving multiple retailers tell a different story. With this in mind, I crossed the street to the parking lots of Target, Lowe’s, the Sports Authority, PetSmart and dozens of other retailers and found a similar story.
As you can see, even though these stores were very busy, the parking lots remained half filled. And during the other 11 months of the year, these lots are usually less than a quarter filled.
These underused lots are representative of Stockton’s legacy of inefficiency. While citizens were sold on projects like Park West Place because of the sales tax revenue and jobs, city officials never considered how to best utilize space, and as a result prime farmland was developed in an inefficient manner. Why would we allow stores to plow over farm land for parking spots that no one will ever use?
Sadly, Stockton has this kind of inefficiency written into its own laws. As part of the city’s zoning ordinance, large shopping centers such as Park West Place are required to build 1 parking space per 250 square feet of retail space. And that’s the minimum. If you take the roughly 750,000 square feet at Park West Place, that comes out to 3,000 total parking spaces.
This is not a phenomenon unique to Stockton as most cities impose similarly ridiculous parking standards. Urban Planner Charles Marohn over at the blog Strong Towns makes a compelling argument for why cities should update their codes to reflect real parking demand.
“Can you imagine Wal-Mart building an entire row of their store and then leaving the shelves empty? It would be ridiculous. Why then do we simply accept that large swaths of their land would be built upon for a use (parking) that literally never happens? We accept it because that is the price of entry, the cost of complying with local regulations.”
For years, cities have required stores to build unnecessary amounts of parking. As a result, smaller stores can’t compete, since they don’t have the money to buy up enough land to comply with these outdated requirements. Marohn notes that big box stores use these rules to their advantage.
“Do you think Wal-Mart opposes parking minimums? They may on an individual site here or there, but in general, parking minimums are one of their best advantages. They simultaneously raise the cost of entry for competitors while further tilting the marketplace in favor of businesses catering to people who drive (a segment Wal-Mart dominates). It is a self-reinforcing, downward cycle. If you are pro-biking, pro-walking or pro- transit, you are anti- parking minimums.”
Whether or not Stockton should tackle this problem is a no-brainer; all the city has to do is abolish parking minimums (or at least lower them) and retailers won’t build excess parking, and we can save space for more productive uses. For the existing oversupply of parking, Stockton has an opportunity for infill. Take a look at Weberstown Mall, which has seen two restaurants—Chipotle and On the Border Grill (which is now Grand Buffet)—built on former parking spaces and still has room to handle the holiday rush.
Luckily, Stockton appears to be wising up to the follies of poor planning. Planning Commissioner Steve Chase frequently discusses the need for Stockton to grow inward. A new sprawling subdivision was voted down by the City Planning Commission just a few weeks ago. Hopefully, city officials now have the will to do away with antiquated planning norms such as parking minimums. It’s an easy step.