Paving paradise and putting up a parking lot

Re-post from Al Jazerra America | Written by Sharon Adarlo

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The skyscrapers of downtown Newark are surrounded by surface parking lots. Image via Newark Metamorphosis.

During the day, parking lots in downtown Newark are jammed with cars belonging to government and corporate office workers. To some observers, the full lots might seem a useful facet of urban life and a sign of a healthy city economy.

 

But not to everyone. At night and during the weekends, the surface lots are desolate, quiet stretches of black and cracked asphalt.  Repeat this scene in other parts of this city’s downtown and you end up with many residents and urban planners complaining they are a form of urban blight. They sap the vitality of an area on the cusp of major gentrification, critics say.

There is also an economic cost: The dead spaces that cars take up don’t generate nearly enough in taxes for Newark’s coffers, and most of all, they might encourage crime. Some residents don’t feel safe around the empty lots late at night.

“I have been here for more than 20 years, and [crime] has been increasing. The synergy there is that with the crime increasing, so are the surface parking lots,” said Madeline Ruiz, an architect. “I used to feel safe.”

Nor are Newark residents alone. Many cities across the U.S. are also confronted by landscapes filled with similar ugliness, posing problems with stormwater runoff and acting as heat sinks.

Miami and Detroit suffer the same problem, says Streetblogs, a website devoted to transportation issues. This year, Rochester, New York, won the blog’s Golden Crater award, which recognizes the city with the most excessive surface parking. An aerial view of Rochester’s core shows a patchwork of blacktop and islands of buildings.

A study from the University of Connecticut compared three U.S. cities with modest parking lot growth and three with triple-digit percentage increases. It found that lot-dominated cities suffered economically. One example was Hartford, Connecticut, which loses $50 million a year thanks to its lots.

“Surface parking lots are holes in the urban fabric,” said Donald Shoup, a professor of urban planning at UCLA and an expert on parking issues in cities. “They don’t produce as much for the economy. The parking lot barely employs a few people compared to a restaurant. A parking lot doesn’t draw anybody to downtown.”

The result is a less healthy city, argue Ruiz and her husband, Dave Robinson, also an architect. They say the spaces are the opposite of what should go there: lively shops and apartments. And having fewer eyes on the street creates more crime-ridden areas.

Newark was a nominee for the Golden Crater this year, and it’s not hard to see why. In the vicinity of Newark’s Penn Station, “there are more than 20 acres of underutilized sites primarily being used as surface parking,” according to the city master plan.

In the latest flashpoint of the parking wars in Newark, a proposed lot has residents up in arms because it already has other parking lots on all four sides. It is on Bruen Street in the Ironbound area, a densely packed neighborhood known for its large population of Brazilian immigrants and Portuguese cafes.

The owners of the property and the person contracted to run the future lot need a variance from the city zoning board. A building on the property was damaged by Hurricane Sandy in 2012 and was subsequently demolished.

“If you do any other business, it won’t work,” said Makram Demian, who owns the property with his brother Maher Demian. They argue it is logical to put in the 73-space lot because it’s surrounded by other parking. “It’s already decided by the neighborhood.” The zoning board has repeatedly delayed hearing their application, but a decision may be reached next month.

A request to talk to members of the zoning board was denied. Angelo Cifelli Jr., the board’s attorney, said members will not comment on a case that is pending. Repeated requests to the city press office were not met. Nor were queries to the planning and the housing and economic development departments.

When asked about parking lots at an unrelated event earlier this month, Mayor Ras Baraka said, “We are going to build up and not across. We are going to look at stormwater runoff.” During his election campaign earlier this year, he told concerned Ironbound residents that he sympathized with their concerns.

ParkingLotSharonAdarlo
Parking lot owned by J&L Corporation that faces toward Newark’s Prudential Center hockey arena.

Newark’s 2012 master plan calls for redevelopment of surface parking lots. New construction projects should get structured parking underground or aboveground, with stacked garages and ground-floor retail. A Whole Foods is slated for Broad Street in a few years. At Broad and Market Streets, the busiest intersection in the city, a mixed-use retail, residential and hotel development is imminent.

Rather than merely serve suburban commuters, Shoup said, the city can encourage landowners to redevelop wasted spaces by putting a hefty tax on them. “It’s just a nudge. It tells landlords it’s probably time to build,” he said.

Eran Ben-Joseph, the head of MIT’s department of urban studies and planning, said improved aesthetics could help surface parking lots. “They are not going away too soon,” he said. “If we design them the right way, they can be an asset.” He has proposed green parking, lots that use innovative ways of managing stormwater and adding vegetation.

Meanwhile, residents like Robinson are committed to fighting the scourge. “These parking lots are a cancer,” he said. “And they are spreading very quickly.”

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