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Streetscape-draining front parking lots may soon be out

Proposed zoning rules that require putting parking spaces to the side of or behind a building, instead of in front, may become law this year, perhaps quickly enough to influence some big box store plans that are in the works.

Photo by rllayman on Flickr.

New developments that put their parking in front significantly diminish the pedestrian environment. They also make it less appealing for other, adjacent projects to address the street, creating a vicious cycle away from an active streetscape, while new buildings with their parking in the rear start a cycle in the opposite, positive direction.

Because of this, DC's Comprehensive Plan calls for locating parking behind or underneath buildings. Actually, the zoning code already requires parking for residential development to be either behind, to the side, or in a garage, but commercial uses can place it anywhere, resulting in stores with large front parking lots in walkable areas or areas that could soon become walkable.

The zoning rewrite proposals include changes to codify the parking location rules for commercial projects as well. Unfortunately, the zoning rewrite is still potentially years from being complete, and projects are going forward now which will lock in bad urban design for decades or more.

In testimony on the parking rules, a number of us asked the Office of Planning and the Zoning Commission to accelerate this specific piece, writing it into the current zoning regs while we wait for the complete overhaul.

OP has now proposed a text amendment to do just this, and submitted it to the Zoning Commission. The commission will then review the proposal and schedule a public hearing, likely in March. If they approve it, there are then various steps (proposed action, final action, publication in the DC Register, and so on), but it's possible these changes could become part of the DC zoning code by mid to late summer.

That may nto be early enough to affect the Aldi, but there are lots more commercial development projects in various stages that will catch fire as the economy improves. Putting the zoning in place now will ensure that the next development boom isn't destructive to neighborhoods' walkability.

David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He now lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. 


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If anybody isn't convinced, just look at the Horrible Giant on 9th between O and P Sts. NW.

What? You didn't know it was on 9th St.? That's because the street-facing portion is a nearly block-long solid brick wall with a loading dock. The corner and other side is a surface parking lot that breaks the street grid by not letting 8th St. go through (ok, the Convention Center eats 8th, but still).

And all that Convention-Center inspired development we're all waiting for? Thank Horrible Giant for killing its spread north of O St.

Let's never let this happen again.

by Ward 1 Guy on Jan 19, 2011 3:36 pm • linkreport

I realize it wasn't on purpose, but you may want to change the heading and not have a pic of a Safeway. Good read otherwise.

by stevek_fairfax on Jan 19, 2011 3:49 pm • linkreport

Good. Are other jurisdictions considering similar measures?

by Jasper on Jan 19, 2011 3:54 pm • linkreport

I've replaced the image with one of the H Street Connection. I wanted to use that originally but couldn't find one late last night.

stevek_fairfax, what's wrong with the heading?

by David Alpert on Jan 19, 2011 3:59 pm • linkreport

@ David Alpert: The lunatic who went on a rampage in Tuscon is stevek_fairfax's reference. He's referring to the use of the word "killing", implying that it could possibly be taken out of context. I don't see how, though, because until I read his comment, I had to piece it together myself (plus, it was a little bit more difficult since I didn't see the Safeway).

by C. R. on Jan 19, 2011 5:30 pm • linkreport

I thought the headline was a tongue-in-cheek reference to the "repeal of the Jobs-killing healthcare bill" legislation that the House began commenting/debating on today.

by Tina on Jan 19, 2011 5:44 pm • linkreport

The following is a comment on suburbs.

I really, REALLY don't understand how the giant parking lots make sense, from the private business perspective.

50 years ago, alright. It was them saying "look, we have free parking for your brand new automobiles, while others dont!"

But thats no longer the case. People in suburbs expect lots of free parking. When has ANYONE ever thought to themselves "I want to go to, let me check their website to see if there is parking and if not, if there are garages nearby". That's the kind of planning you do when going to a restaurant or museum or theater downtown, not when going to Best Buy or the supermarket. Parking is a given.

So since people expect the parking....why the need to highlight it? Doesn't it make more sense to put the store in the most visible place, ie, by the street and have parking in the back?

I can't be the only one who has driven to a supermarket 100 times, and on visit 101 said "oh wow, there's a chinese place here too! I had no idea!"

I mean, you're driving, you don't have time to look to your right, past 100 rows of parking, and scan the small signs to see what retail there is.

Mcdonalds gets it. They always locate right by the street. Extremely visible. Yes, they surround themselves by parking, but their logo, their banners proclaiming $1 burgers....all clearly visible from the street, because it's on the street!

So why don't others? How on earth is it good business sense to hide 100 yards from the street? Who the hell can read your "50% off!" sign from all the way across the parking lot...?

by JJJJJ on Jan 19, 2011 6:26 pm • linkreport

I'm generally for not putting parking lots in front of the businesses, however seeing what happened at the Safeway in Georgetown has given me reason to think about it. There's no way anyone can say that that cavernouse, ugly, factory-like parking lot under the new Safeway is more appealing than the lot that it replaced ... Additionally, the street doesn't look half as nice anymore. The openess that Wisconsin had in that bend of the street was because of the parking lot ... I think we need to be more carefull than just say 'no street front parking' ... As evidenced by the Georgetown Safeway, that can force/enable the developer to build something that may be better for them (i.e., pack more 'building' onto a lot ... the 'Tregoning tradition') and detrimental to the community. I don't know if I have a solution, but the one being proposed probably isn't a good solution.

by Lance on Jan 19, 2011 6:44 pm • linkreport

I like this idea but does that mean there will be two entrances, one in the front and one in the back? Two sets of checkout lines? Two entrances I now have to watch for shoplifters?

Or do drivers have to walk around to the front of the store, an inconvenience that may lead to them shopping at another store.

by Matt R on Jan 19, 2011 7:00 pm • linkreport

Early shopping centers were basically street car strips with a parking lot in front and quickly they got bigger lots in back. Eventually things tended to favor the front, except in the case of malls where parking was everywhere. For super markets and other large stores, rear-based parking wouldn't require much of a change---there's a past history of having 2 entrances and it's easy to pick the narrowest orientation for checkout. It's more complicated where you have strips of small stores and takeout. Having more than one entrance is inconvenient.

The Giant at 8th & O happens to be my closet regular supermarket. There's nothing wrong with the orientation of the store and the parking lot is hardly large or much of an impediment to anything. The loading dock/rear would have to face somewhere and someone would complain regardless of where. Parking does not have to be underneath. There's also a history of rooftop parking--the old Tenleytown Sears had it as did the Hechingers (which started life as a Giant). Jewel has several c. 1960s stores like this in Chicago and Evanston.

by Rich on Jan 19, 2011 9:31 pm • linkreport

Matt, you can change the orientation so checkout serves front and back.

Or yes, make them walk a little bit. It's not like you dont walk in the supermarket.

by JJJJJ on Jan 20, 2011 12:56 am • linkreport

"There's no way anyone can say that that cavernouse, ugly, factory-like parking lot under the new Safeway is more appealing than the lot that it replaced"

If one where hanging out there, sure.

Additionally, the street doesn't look half as nice anymore. The openess that Wisconsin had in that bend of the street was because of the parking lot"

Wisconcin Avenue is hardly a light starved canyon.

Even if you don't believe that pedestrian activity should take precidence over automobile convenience, just look at the article in the today's Post that ranked us as the worse nationally for time lost commuting (in cars). 70 hours a year one could be surfing the net, blogging, or just jamm'n on lego models. Getting the parking lot off the front is more than just enhancing the pedestrian experiance, it's an integral part of a multi-sided effort to remake our cities more sustainable, and as such, should be applauded.

by Thayer-D on Jan 20, 2011 7:41 am • linkreport


Lance leaves so many softballs hanging out there, it's not really that much fun to swing at them any more. Mourning the loss of a surface parking lot tells you all you need to know about the Committee of 100.....

by rg on Jan 20, 2011 9:20 am • linkreport

As a regular patron of the Social Safeway on Wisconsin, I couldn't disagree more with Lance on his point.

First of all, I find myself walking to the store far more often than I did with the previous iteration, due to the fact that it's almost a full block closer than it used to be with the removal of the front parking lot.

Second, when we do drive, we generally park in the upper back lot (rather than the "cavern" space), which provides a nice brick and forest view, and allows us to walk right into the store. We're probably at Safeway 1-2 times per week, and the upper lot is full less than 10% of the time.

Finally, what Lance refers to as "the openness that Wisconsin had at the bend in the road", I always viewed as a demarkation line, separating upper Georgetown from Glover Park. The new Safeway provides a continuity that helps me realize that Glover Park isn't so far away, and makes me more likely to walk there (from our place on 35th) than I would have been pre-Safeway.

by Jacques on Jan 20, 2011 10:29 am • linkreport

I tho't Lance does all his shopping in VA to avoid the bag fee-? Maybe he's just using the Safeway lot illegitimately...?

by Tina on Jan 20, 2011 10:50 am • linkreport

I tho't Lance does all his shopping in VA to avoid the bag fee-? Maybe he's just using the Safeway lot illegitimately...?

You can't mean to say you took Lance literally? He was merely saying that for rhetorical effect. Okay, everything he says is for rhetorical effect, but that's a topic for another thread...


by oboe on Jan 20, 2011 10:54 am • linkreport

@Tina/oboe ... Don't you remember my also saying that there was at least one store in DC where I wasn't getting charged for bags?

by Lance on Jan 20, 2011 11:20 pm • linkreport

we always come to regret "one size fits all" regulations. What if you face an interstate or area that doesn't lend itself to not parking in the front? Dont hinder property owners on what they can do with their land just because you've seen examples of poor layouts in the City. Fix those or place a filter on future ones happening that reflect poor design for that location. You cant regulate good design; only encourage it. Alexandria has still not learned this lesson.

by jw on Jan 9, 2012 10:13 am • linkreport

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