Extreme Makeover: Reinventing the Parking Lot

Ripping up yesterday's asphalt expanses can make towns greener and livelier and still save room for cars

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Landslides Aerial Photography

It took seven eyars to clean up the parking lot (outlined above in red).

Drivers often joke that New York's Long Island Expressway is one big parking lot. But there's a serious assessment under way of how to make better use of the 4,341 acres (1,757 hectares) of parking lots located within half a mile (800 m) of downtowns or transit stops on the island. Imagine what you would do with part or all of that land — and then imagine winning a $10,000 grand prize for your pie-in-the-sky ideas. The Long Island Index, a nonprofit research group, is looking for design proposals — they don't have to be tied to a particular location, although Web users can access a nifty interactive map — for its Build a Better Burb contest, which plays up the notion that asphalt could be suburbia's greatest asset.

"Parking lots are probably the largest underutilized depository of real estate in the country," says Galina Tachieva, an urban planner based in Miami and the author of the forthcoming Sprawl Repair Manual. With the contest's June 21 deadline fast approaching, armchair developers — and professional ones too — can look for inspiration to projects around the country that have repurposed parking lots for the greater good, with so-called infill development helping revitalize the long-suffering malls and Main Streets of America.

Many of Northern California's train-station parking lots are now home to joint office-and-residential buildings. Some companies, like Kyocera in San Diego, have installed solar panels above their parking lots to create solar fields that can produce enough energy to power 68 homes. Other projects are low tech and low cost. Depave, a nonprofit based in Portland, Ore., has ripped up 35,000 sq. ft. (3,250 sq m) of asphalt to plant flowers and vegetables. In Camden, S.C., a parking lot is being made into a town square.

The lots on Long Island are close to shops, restaurants and commuter trains, making them prime socializing territory. By creating densely populated residences on these parcels, "we could fit 90,000 units of housing," says Ann Golob, Long Island Index's director. Adding that much single-family housing on virgin land, she notes, "would consume every acre of open land we have left."

But where is everybody going to park? In new underground or multistory garages. At Station Square in Clearwater, Fla., 126 condos sit on a former 78-spot parking lot. Amenities include a rooftop pool, a fitness center and ground-floor retail space — plus a five-story garage in the building that has 326 parking spots, 100 of them public. "There's more parking now than there was before," says the property's manager, David Traynor.

Reimagined parking lots can have big environmental benefits too. Massachusetts' Wellesley College has won accolades for turning a 175-space parking lot — located on a toxic brownfield — back into countryside, complete with functioning wetlands to help manage excess storm water. "It's not just about scenery but giving the new landscape an ecological function," says Michael Van Valkenburgh, the landscape architect who designed the Alumnae Valley project. And there's still plenty of parking, but it's now in the form of a garage.

The challenge for civic boosters like the Long Island Index is not only to urge developers to build more projects that involve mixed-use buildings, sidewalks, mass transit and bike lanes and drum up more public policy to support these efforts but also to get Americans to start demanding parking spaces different from the flat fields of asphalt to which we're accustomed. To undo urban sprawl, says Golob, "we're going to have to learn to think about parking differently." We may even — egad — start leaving the car at home.