This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

Two Views of M Street: the people entrance and the parking entrance

I appreciate Roger Valdez’s straight-up acknowledgement that yes, there is “social engineering” going on in American cities:

Yes, we are social engineers, but no more so thanRobert Moses and his followers, who built “free” highways and subsidized, auto-dependent single-family communities that ate up land, fuel, and energy for more than half a century. That kind of social engineering has run out of (cheap) gas. The answer is to engineer more wisely, not to return to the Wild West or mimick South American shanty towns.

Shortly after I read this article I found myself walking home past the recently-closed M Street grocery on First Hill.  Though M Street was popular with the locals, it couldn’t make ends meet after the building’s owners doubled the rent on them.  While doubling the rent seems extreme, keep in mind that the property’s new owners, the Ohio Teachers’ Retirement System, bought the development for $75M back in 2006.  Gotta recoup that investment somehow.

The reason I bring up the M Street grocery is that urban living (and suburban living) is all about choices.  The choices we make necessitate other choices.  Developers on First Hill are required to provide parking (this requirement was mercifully reduced to 0.5 spaces/unit, but only after the M Street building was completed), which increases the costs of development, and thus the amount of rent that needs to be collected on the building’s tenants. Furthermore, requiring parking makes it easier for M Street’s residents to own a car, which makes it more likely that they — and their neighbors — will be able to patronize grocery stores further afield.  Especially if those grocery stores, are, say, the nearby QFC or Whole Foods, both of whom offer free customer parking.

Thus, only certain kinds of businesses can afford to stay open in neighborhoods like First Hill — and apparently grocery stores are not one of them.  Which is a problem, but it’s a problem that results directly from car-centric “social engineering.”  We may wish to take a “ducks unlimited” approach to urban planning: “sure, give them parking spots, we’ll offer them such awesome retail that they’ll choose not to use them!”  In reality, however, choices and constraints prevail.  By choosing to have parking minimums, we’re directly limiting the type of retail that can exist at the ground level.  Fortunately, we’re making the right choices in First Hill.  What about your neighborhood?

4 Replies to “Choices”

  1. Something I’ve noticed in my neighborhood (QA) is:

    1. The new Bartells came with free underground parking.

    2. This lot has very few spaces – I’d guess around a dozen.

    3. I have never seen this lot anywhere close to full.

    People may be parking on the street – it is less than obvious that there’s free parking underground (despite the large sign in the alley). But it seems like quite a few people walk to the store. Which is impressive for a neighborhood filled with single family housing. I wonder if our 30-foot lot lines (generally about 4,000 sf lots) designed as a streetcar suburb, and tiny streets (small streets = less wasted area = closer distances and more density) gives us just enough density to support a drug store with little or no parking at all. And if we could do it, a lot of places in the city could.

  2. Interesting point. Do you think think there’s a difference in kind between drugstores (little purchases) and grocery stores (bigger purchases)?

  3. Probably, depending on the distance of the trip. I walk to the grocery store every time I visit, but it’s only a block and a half from my home. Once you’re far enough away, walking with a few bags of groceries can be a pain.

    My favorite example of a good solution is the Metro supermarket in Shanghai. It’s huge and is located at the intersection of sever lines of the Shanghai Metro, so you see people with large bags of groceries on the subway heading home.

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