Should downtown Detroit ban more surface parking l...

Should downtown Detroit ban more surface parking lots?

Empty lots in downtown Detroit

Parking lots on every corner in downtown Detroit. Courtesy Detroiters for Parking Reform

A group of Detroiters is calling for the city to temporarily ban more commercial surface parking lots downtown, arguing that lots have spread through the city like “a disease” and “threaten to undermine Detroit’s resurgence.”

“Every acre of land dedicated to parking is an acre that can’t be used for jobs, housing, businesses or parks,” the group Detroiters for Parking Reform said in a release last week. They’re calling for a moratorium on new lots until the city’s zoning code is updated and the city does a thorough analysis of its parking market. 

There’s no question that there’s a lot of parking: there are more than 150 lots downtown, according to the Free Press. 

“There’s more parking downtown now than at any point in the history of Detroit, and that was when there were twice as many people and 3 times as many businesses,” Francis Grunow, one of the group’s organizers, told Detour.

The idea for Detroiters for Parking Reform came out of preservationist concerns that the Saturday Night Building could be demolished (fate currently in limbo) — throughout Detroit’s history, buildings have routinely been paved over to make way for lots. 

Separately, Grunow has been pushing for a critical look at parking in Midtown, where the Ilitches maintain more than a dozen parking lots while failing to keep their development promises. Prioritizing parking for arena events has hollowed out the neighborhood, critics say. Grunow chaired the Neighborhood Advisory Council for the Little Caesars Arena project, which held its final meeting last week

As part of the reform group’s public rollout, they’re pushing for changes they say would benefit developers and neighborhoods. They argue developers are hamstrung by regulations that require them to build a certain number of parking spaces (called “parking minimums”), even if space or demand doesn’t call for them. The city is currently considering a sweeping overhaul of the zoning code, with changes that include exempting some transit- and pedestrian-friendly areas of the city from the parking minimums and instituting parking maximums in those areas. 

Detroiters for Parking Reform also want some funds from city-owned parking spots to be reinvested in the neighborhoods where they’re located.

But despite the stats on Detroit’s parking proliferation, it’s still common to hear frustrations about the difficulty of finding a spot downtown, especially on days with major events. Away from the city center, thestreetscape construction project on Livernois Avenue, which has temporarily eliminated on-street parking, raised concerns from businesses about the lack of easy parking keeping customers away.

The finished project will include some street parking. Still, Dolphin Michael, president of the Avenue of Fashion Business Association, said it’s critical to cater to cars in a district where most shoppers expect to drive up

And developers often include plenty of parking to attract new tenants and placate neighbors concerned about losing their street spots. Even development cheerleaders like Midtown Inc.’s Sue Mosey have suggested new stores and buildings need to go hand-in-hand with parking considerations. In 2017, she dismissed the idea that the area’s parking needs would decline anytime soon, citing consistently full parking around the most built up parts of Midtown. 

“Parking is an emotional issue,” Grunow acknowledged. “It’s this essentially American expectation that wherever you bring your 2,500-pound piece of metal that takes you anywhere, that there will be a place for it. That’s kind of ingrained in us.”

Accommodating every person that wants to drive downtown and park in front of their destination is at a “fundamental disconnect” with holistic development, he said. They’re not trying to get rid of cars, but want to encourage managing available parking better, as well as incentivizing people to consider other forms of transportation. 

That’s easier with new technologies — and Bedrock, one of the biggest drivers of development and traffic downtown, is actually a local model for parking strategies. They pay employees to use non-auto transportation, organize commuting and manage capacity with software like Luum and Scoop

When asked by Detour, Bedrock declined to say whether they backed any of the reform proposals. The company aims to make it easier for people to use alternative transit so the city is more accessible for both residents and non-Detroiters, said Kevin Bopp, vice president of parking and mobility for Bedrock. 

Grunow said his group’s next step is to bring plans to individual City Council members to try to rally backers. The city didn’t respond to questions about the proposed reforms, though Mayor Mike Duggan has previously used a moratorium to guide land use

Getting into the weeds for one last minute… the Detroiters for Parking Reform folks also note how state tax code limits options for the city to manage surface lots. Currently, profitable surface lots are taxed like vacant land, incentivizing landowners not to develop and incur higher property taxes. (Other cities like Pittsburgh have taxed parking at higher rates.) What’s striking, however unlikely a tax code rewrite may be, is that stakeholders have been complaining about this exact issue for decades. 

1978 Free Press article lists several downtown buildings getting the wrecking ball to make way for lots. In the article, one official complained that state tax code means a developer would “pay through the nose… while the guy with the surface parking is making all the money.”

According to the article, “so much of downtown Detroit has been paved for surface parking that some critics refer to the area as ‘one big parking lot.’” Forty years later, surface lot skeptics are beyond ready to reverse the trend.

Kate Abbey-Lambertz is the co-founder and editorial director for Detour Media. She leads editorial strategy for the signature Detour Detroit newsletter, The Blend and special projects, while shaping Detour’s membership program, audience development initiatives and design. Kate was previously a national reporter at HuffPost, where she covered equitable cities and urban issues. She launched HuffPost’s Detroit vertical, serving as reporter and editor, and has reported on Detroit for a decade. Follow her on Twitter: @kabbeyl