Empty Lots

(A documentary photo project in minneapolis.) ...............Because the world is your parking lot...............
Location: CVS parking lot, Franklin Ave. between Nicollet Ave. and 1st Ave. S
Time/date: 12:49 p.m., Monday, May 28
Ratio of cars to parking spots: 5 to 40
The Empty Lots team spent much of Memorial Day snapping photos downtown for a follow up to today’s piece about making downtown Minneapolis more than just a destination for retail shoppers, baseball fans, and office workers. But on our way there, we ran across a few other wide open spaces that caught our eye (and our ire). Here’s the first, a nifty little 40-spot lot tucked behind the Franklin Avenue CVS just south of downtown.

Location: CVS parking lot, Franklin Ave. between Nicollet Ave. and 1st Ave. S

Time/date: 12:49 p.m., Monday, May 28

Ratio of cars to parking spots: 5 to 40

The Empty Lots team spent much of Memorial Day snapping photos downtown for a follow up to today’s piece about making downtown Minneapolis more than just a destination for retail shoppers, baseball fans, and office workers. But on our way there, we ran across a few other wide open spaces that caught our eye (and our ire). Here’s the first, a nifty little 40-spot lot tucked behind the Franklin Avenue CVS just south of downtown.

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Downtown Minneapolis: The Big Picture

The bird’s eye view of downtown Minneapolis is fairly shocking, mostly because it gives a real sense of just how much of it is dedicated to surface parking (by some estimates, parking accounts for one-third of its surface area). What you see in the photo above (which spans from about 3rd Ave N to 10th Ave S) is a small and fairly dense city center surrounded by vast swaths of parking lots. This is particularly clear in the space between the Metrodome (ahem, sorry…Mall of America Field) and the city center. Huge stretches of this part of what should be the busiest and densest part of our city are basically paved deserts. No one lives there; no one works there. And from an urban design standpoint, the message is clear: They’re not supposed to.

The problem with this kind of model is that it turns downtown Minneapolis into a destination—a place that people travel to for a short time from whatever corner of the Twin Cities they call home in order to work or shop or see a concert—rather than a place anyone would actually want to live. Now, being a destination in itself isn’t the problem here—the businesses downtown no doubt depend on the large influx of people who work and eat and shop for their sex toys downtown but live elsewhere. The problem is that downtown is merely a destination, rather than a thriving and bustling urban center where people can live and work and play all in the same densely built space.

Now, clearly, all of these parking lots are there for a reason. Lots of people work downtown, and these parking lots are getting plenty of use thanks to those people (though they are completely deserted on nights and weekends, save the 8 days a year that the Vikings play football games there). And since parking is basically the least productive/valuable way of using land in an urban center, we can also assume that there are some barriers to more productive/valuable uses of these spaces. Businesses and retailers are clearly hesitant to open their doors in the parts of downtown that are not Nicollet, Hennepin, or Washington Avenues. And it’s clear why this is the case: no one lives there, and the space is clearly not designed to support people who might want to live there. 

Generally, living in an urban downtown is going to be slightly more expensive than living just outside of it. Ideally, though, the advantages of living in such a space (reduced need for a vehicle, easy access to amenities like grocery stores, shopping, restaurants, gyms, etc within walking distance of your door, proximity to your place of work) make up for the slightly higher price tags. But here we’ve created a downtown in which it is more expensive to live and yet that offers very few of the advantages we normally associate with downtown living. Most people still have to drive across the river to get to a grocery store (unless they shop at Target); they still have to walk/bike/drive long distances past barren and unsightly parking lots to get where they need to go. And there aren’t a lot of businesses geared toward people who might actually live there—corner stores, grocery stores, pet stores, hardware, and so on. There’s nine-to-five business, and then there’s nightlife/entertainment.

The message: this is a destination, not a place to live.

Part of what we’ll be looking at over the course of this project are ways in which these barriers to development/inhabitance might be overcome. Though these lots might not be technically empty, they are almost certainly being underutilized. And what’s more, they create an atmosphere which shuts people out, either physically (by surrounding the central business districts with parking lots, we also make it more difficult/less desirable for people to walk from the surrounding areas into downtown) or through urban design that sends a clear message to visitors: Enjoy it while you’re here, but when you’re done, please, drive safely back to your homes.

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Eight parking spots for every one car in the U.S.

A New York Times article from earlier this year cites a study that estimates we’ve built as many as eight parking spots for every one car in the U.S. In Houston, that number is closer to 30 to 1. 

Matthew Yglesias cites this fact in his (typically typo-ridden) thought experiment about how one day, autonomous vehicles like the one Google’s been cooking up could greatly reduce this ratio. The relevant bits:

[R]ight now every metropolitan area in the United States contains many, many more parking spaces than automobiles. When you’re at work, the space allocated for your vehicle at home sits there empty. When you’re at home, the space allocated for your vehicle at the office sits empty. Malls build parking to accommodate demand during peak hours, and the spaces mostly sit empty off-peak. But if the cars could drive around without a human pilot, there’d be no need for such lavish supplies of vehicle storage. In principle, a metro area could get by with fewer than one parking space per car since even at minimum-demand times a nonzero quantity of vehicles would be in use. That’s probably extreme, but right now depending on how you count we have somewhere between three and eight parking spaces per car. If the cars don’t need to sit idly waiting for you until you want to leave (imagine a world of cheap, ubiquitous taxis) that number is going to become totally ridiculous. After exploding for about 60 years, the torrent of parking construction is going to halt very suddenly and then start shifting into reverse.

Extreme, yes, but interesting to hold up as a kind of Platonic ideal of how to handle the very real need for multiple parking spots per vehicle. Any remote movement in this direction would be a welcome shift.

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Location: Mpls Police Department, 5th precinct, public parking lot, 31st St. and 1st Ave., Minneapolis
Time/date: 2:19 p.m., Friday, May 25
Ratio of cars to parking spots: 1 to 26
We agree that the police department should have ample public parking to accommodate any and all emergency situations. We wouldn’t want anyone circling the block looking for a parking space while the bad guys are hightailing it to safety. These truths are, as they say, self evident. But we also ask: Aren’t most emergency situations these days usually reported by, you know, the telephone? Is anyone actually driving down to the station to report a crime? And if not, in what situations might twenty-six non-police vehicles ever find themselves descending upon the 5th Precinct station at exactly the same moment?
Can’t think of any? No, that’s okay. Neither can we.

Location: Mpls Police Department, 5th precinct, public parking lot, 31st St. and 1st Ave., Minneapolis

Time/date: 2:19 p.m., Friday, May 25

Ratio of cars to parking spots: 1 to 26

We agree that the police department should have ample public parking to accommodate any and all emergency situations. We wouldn’t want anyone circling the block looking for a parking space while the bad guys are hightailing it to safety. These truths are, as they say, self evident. But we also ask: Aren’t most emergency situations these days usually reported by, you know, the telephone? Is anyone actually driving down to the station to report a crime? And if not, in what situations might twenty-six non-police vehicles ever find themselves descending upon the 5th Precinct station at exactly the same moment?

Can’t think of any? No, that’s okay. Neither can we.

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Location: Kmart parking lot, Lake St. & Nicollet Ave., Minneapolis

Time/date: 2:35 pm, Friday, May 25

Ratio of cars to parking spots: 74 to 576

The mother of all Minneapolis empty lots. You almost have to admire this Kmart’s ability to persist in the face of adversity, especially in a town that is more or less owned and operated by Target. And we have no gripe with the store itself—lots of people in the neighborhood shop there, whether out of convenience (it’s highly transit-accessible) or because of its (danger!) falling prices. If no one shopped there, the place would be closed by now. Most Kmarts are. But not only is this parking lot a gross misuse of valuable city space (at the time we visited, during peak hours on a Friday afternoon, over 500 parking spots sat empty), it also blocks one of the city’s busiest (and fastest growing) commercial thoroughfares. It’s as if a suburban superstore dropped from the sky and landed in the middle of Nicollet Ave. How did this happen? The Star Tribune has a good summary of the history here, as well as a discussion of the renewed push to reopen Nicollet to through-traffic.

At least a couple of local entrepreneurs have caught on to the fact that this space has potential uses beyond its current state: two taco trucks—El Primo and Taco Taxi—have set up shop in the lot. The Empty Lots team can vouch for their deliciousness.

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Empty Lots is born (Let us rejoice and be glad).

Empty Lots is a documentary photo project interested in uncovering un- or underutilized urban spaces in Minneapolis. We believe that density breeds prosperity, creativity, and community. We believe that parking lots breed the opposite. Especially when they sit empty.

Hence, on this day, Empty Lots is born.

What you can expect: frequent updates (usually photos, but also: news, commentary, links, and other urban-design-related whimsy).

What you can contribute: Your own Empty Lots photos. Live in or around Minneapolis? Got an Empty Lot near you that’s just sitting there all fat and bloated and crusted over with pavement, unused and unloved and uninspired? Then snap a photo of it and send it to us (emptylotsmpls@gmail.com), along with the location and date/time the photo was taken. (One quick ground rule: photos should be taken during peak or prime traffic hours in order to give as true a picture as possible of how the space actually gets used. A high school parking lot might be deserted at 10 pm, but it’s packed full of tricked-out Honda Civics at noon.) If you’re really feeling ambitious, you might even consider counting the total number of parking spots in the lot, and then comparing that to the total number of spots filled.

But it’s the photos we’re after, really. The rest is just extra credit.

See you around (we hope).

-EL

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