Episode 105: Paved Paradise with Henry Grabar
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Henry Grabar: When we think about parking fights, like, let’s not limit ourselves to two guys going at it with baseball bats. The real parking fight is the one that happens at the community meeting. It’s the one that happens in the city council. Those disputes are the ones that probably have the more meaningful, certainly have the more meaningful effect on the parking supply and on the housing supply, right? Because we envision new neighbors as coming in parking-sized packages. And so if you are obsessed with the parking shortage, that will lead you directly to this kind of Malthusian thinking about cities where every new neighbor, every new business, a new school, whatever, all that gets evaluated in terms of its impact on the parking supply. And that’s no way to go through life.
Doug Gordon: This is The War on Cars. I’m Doug Gordon. My co-hosts Aaron Naparstek and Sarah Goodyear can’t join us today because they are circling the block looking for a parking space. No, just kidding. But I am joined by a fantastic guest, someone who has a lot to say about parking, Henry Grabar, welcome back to The War on Cars.
Henry Grabar: Thanks for having me, Doug.
Doug: So Henry, you last joined us on episode 82, Pain at the Pump.
Henry Grabar: I remember it well. We were—we were fighting about gas prices, and we’ve come a long way since then.
Doug: Everybody’s happy with the price of gas now. Everything’s fine. Now we’re back to fighting about parking spaces.
Henry Grabar: One interesting thing to imagine is that one day we will—we will no longer fight about gas prices. And I think we could—it’s a conversation for another day, but lately I’ve been thinking a lot about parking and electric vehicles, and maybe we can talk about that. And it’s an interesting idea to contemplate that we’ll no longer have the price of driving around displayed on these giant billboards everywhere, and it won’t be such a subject of political attention. And in fact, that attention may be replaced by concern about the price of parking. So how’s that for a segue?
Doug: That’s pretty good. And that gets us right to your book. Henry has written an incredible new book. It’s called Paved Paradise: How Parking Explains the World. It’s available now from Penguin Press. Henry, when you were here in March, 2022, you mentioned you were writing this book and you said, and I quote, “I think your listenership may be the rare segment of American media that doesn’t hear a book about parking and just immediately think, ‘Well, that sounds like the most boring thing in the world.'”
Henry Grabar: [laughs]
Doug: So I do need to say this book is anything but boring. It’s really entertaining, it’s informative, it’s really—it’s very sensitive and nuanced. You’ve approached this, I think, from every possible angle that you could. It’s a really well-done book that does cause you to go out into the world and see things in a different way. As the subtitle says, it explains the world.
Henry Grabar: I’m so glad to hear you say that. I think, you know, I—one of the reasons I was radicalized on parking issues and I started to think that this would make an interesting subject for a book is because I ride a bike. And you know that. Like, you saw me locking it up outside. And if you write a book about parking just for people who don’t drive, you are to some extent preaching to the choir, because everybody who rides a bike is aware of how ridiculous the situation is. And so I really wanted to make sure that this book would resonate with people who drive. And I hope that that is the case, and I hope that people who drive will read this book and feel not, like, scolded for their driving and their car ownership, but feel a sense of opportunity about the idea that we might be able to make the situation a little better.
Doug: Okay. And we’re gonna talk about some of the ways that people are working to make the situation a little better, but first some housekeeping. Listeners, if you like what we do at The War on Cars and want to help us produce the podcast, you can find us on Patreon. Go to TheWaronCars.org, click “Support Us“, and starting at $3 per month, you can get ad-free versions of regular episodes like this one, as well as exclusive bonus content, merch discounts, invitations to live events and more. And we will send you stickers. So thanks.
Doug: Henry, this seems like a rather obvious place to start, I guess, but one of the basic facts of parking is that no one drives unless they know they have a place to store their car at the end of their trip. And early in the book, you write that, “Without a place to park, you can never get out of the car. A parking space is nothing less than the link between driving and life itself, the 9×18-foot portal through which lies whatever you got in the car to do in the first place.” And part of it, like the heart of your book, is this idea that even in places where it can feel difficult to find parking like Brooklyn, New York, or Berkeley, California, Boston, there’s almost zero chance you won’t find parking if you’re willing to pay for it in terms of time or money. How have we created this country where we’re in this situation where parking is such a determinative force that it shapes, as you argue in the book, the physical layout of our cities, towns, buildings. There’s just vast acres of parking everywhere, and yet parking always feels so difficult to find. We describe it in a lot of articles that we read as “precious,” like they’re endangered species or a jewel or something like that.
Henry Grabar: One thing that I did when I started writing this book was I had a—I had a Google alert for “parking shortage.” And you find that expression used constantly. And there have been studies of this, and you learn that even most places that describe themselves as having a “parking shortage,” in fact, do not. They actually do have enough parking for everyone, and then sometimes they are technically oversupplied, meaning that the parking is only ever about 60 percent full or something like that.
Henry Grabar: So how do we explain this seeming paradox that, you know, you’ve seen the studies perhaps that America has one to two billion parking spaces, three to seven for every car. And some of those cars are in motion, so there’s always two empty parking spaces at least. So—so why does it feel so scarce then? I think that’s the—that’s the question that most people ask me when they hear just how abundant it is. And I think there’s a few reasons for that.
Henry Grabar: I mean, first of all, parking abundance isn’t always exactly in the same places as people complain about parking scarcity, right? Like, Dodger Stadium has a lot of parking, but it’s not very useful for people on a day-to-day basis. And in fact, that just goes to the point of the wastefulness of this subject, generally speaking, that all that parking sits empty most of the time. But then when you think about parking-challenged places like, say, Park Slope—or as it’s apparently sometimes known, Can’t Park Slope—and there’s a few things going on there. I mean, one of them is that parking is mismanaged.
Henry Grabar: So parking is underpriced, as Don Shoup shows in his landmark book, The High Cost of Free Parking. When you make parking free, people will use it in ways that are extremely inefficient, and that can create localized supply and demand shortages. Even if perhaps there is enough parking, people are using it in a bad way. And the best parking, the most useful parking, is used the same way as the least useful parking and costs exactly the same amount. So that’s part of it.
Henry Grabar: The other thing is that parking isn’t shared. And so when you count up all the parking spaces, you’re often counting parking that is proprietary and that belongs to a particular use, like, for example, Dodger Stadium. If it were surrounded by apartment buildings, you couldn’t park your car there. It belongs to the baseball team. And that situation is repeated in every city and suburb in America where you have these proprietary little lots and you’ll see signs, you know, “This parking is for clients of Sam’s Restaurant. Do not park here, you will be towed,” et cetera, et cetera. And what that means is not only is that parking being used very inefficiently because customers of, say, the bank can’t park at the parking lot of the movie theater or vice versa, but also you’ve created a situation in which people have to drive from errand to errand to errand. You can’t just get out of your car and walk. And in that sense, creating a system where every location has its own proprietary parking lot is actually forcing people to drive more. And so that’s part of the reason it feels scarce as well, because you’re going to the office, you can’t park in the condo parking lot and vice versa.
Doug: And in fact, in the book, you write about this very high standard that we place on parking that we apply to no other good or service. You write, “We expect parking to be immediately available directly in front of our destination and most important, free. This is unique.” I mean, I think of the old adage in media production or business of, like, cheap, fast, good. Pick two. But parking, we want all three. We want to drive right to the front door of the restaurant. We want that spot to be free, and we want it to be waiting for us as soon as our reservation is set to start.
Henry Grabar: Yeah, absolutely. It’s funny you mention restaurant because one of the parking reformers I talked to in the book is an architect in a suburb of Seattle, and he lives in a place where fear of the parking shortage has made it difficult to build housing without a bunch of parking. And he was joking that he was gonna go and stand in front of a downtown restaurant, and when people show up for dinner, he would park their car for free. In exchange, they would commit to not complaining about a parking shortage anymore. And his point was there is no parking directly in front of the restaurant. But if you just drive another two blocks, there’s plenty of it.
Henry Grabar: And so while that’s not the case in, for example, Park Slope, I think that is the case in a lot of suburban communities where, like, yeah, you got your busy downtown strip where there’s not a lot of parking, but then, like, three blocks from that, you’ve got these residential neighborhoods with curbs that are completely unoccupied most of the day. And that’s the case even in, like, Austin, Texas, you have neighborhoods that fit that description. So—so, you know, again, that’s another case of mismanagement, right? And there’s this weird thing happening with parking where it is considered a source of local pride to have great knowledge of the parking situation, because parking, unlike driving directions, restaurant reviews, everything else, it’s not really mapped and it’s not really clear, like, where you should go if you need to park for four hours for the least amount of money and all that. And so people, they—they hang on to this knowledge, and that is not a way to run an effective system that’s so important for your city.
Doug: You get into it—we’re jumping around a little bit, but I’m reminded of the part in your book where you talk to the founder of SpotHero, who is essentially inventorying a lot of cities’ parking and doing what you’re talking about of saying, “Look, there is parking in this area. It’s just not immediately observable as free and open to you.” And so he goes around to different garages and different lots and different owners in sort of in a very Airbnb, of Uber, of tech way, is using technology to tell people, “When you get to this destination, if you just go over here, we’ve got a spot for you in this garage. It might be a two-minute, five-minute walk from your destination, but it is available.” And in reading that and hearing you talk a little bit about the one to two billion parking spaces we have, I’m struck by that there’s no real estimate—and even at the neighborhood level sometimes—of how many parking spaces there are. You couldn’t actually ask our local city council people to tell you how many parking spaces there are.
Henry Grabar: Yeah, it’s crazy, right? And when you think about the value that people ascribe to that, and then how much they’d be willing to pay for them if they were on the open market, and it’s just this totally nebulous, uncounted thing. I hope that changes, and we have seen some pretty rigorous parking studies in places like San Francisco. But you’re right that in most places there is no firm estimate of how many parking spaces there are. And the estimates vary so widely. I mean, how can we be uncertain if it’s one billion or two billion? That seems like a pretty big degree of uncertainty. So for those of you who are listening, who are perhaps in college or graduate school and interested in studying this kind of stuff, would love to see some clarity on that issue, especially in cities, right, where, like, this parking stock ought to be managed with more attention. And how can we manage it if we can’t even count it?
Doug: So this uncertainty that’s built into this system—such that it is—of driving, it really is one of the biggest things fueling these fights over parking. And that word “fight” is used literally in the opening chapters of your book, where you talk about some of the violence that has broken out over parking spots. And it’s notable that the first murder in New York City this year was over a parking space. And you talk about the sort of parking-driven psychosis that leads to this stuff, this anxiety that hangs over every trip, this uncertainty. You know, when you take the bus, you don’t think, “Gee, I wonder if there’s going to be a station stop at the end of my trip.” You don’t—you don’t fly and think, “I wonder if there’ll be an airport where I land.” But when you drive, you think, “I wonder if there will be a spot where I’m going.” And that anxiety really builds and builds to the point where, as you document, there’s just a lot of physical violence that erupts over parking.
Henry Grabar: I think you’re onto something there. I think the uncertainty involved in parking is actually motivating a lot of the irritation and anger and the bad politics around this subject. Because I honestly think that when people encounter paid parking on a regular basis, and they understand that it essentially guarantees them a spot where they want it, when they want it, they come around and reason that you know what? Maybe that’s a fair trade off. But right now, I think it can be hard to put that into context because we’re accustomed to this uncertainty, and it’s weird, right? Like, driving directions will tell you that you’re gonna be somewhere in 21 minutes, and the parking is just like this, like, uncertain quantity that’s added o to the end of it. Nobody really knows. I guess Google tells you now, like, parking may be difficult at this location.
Henry Grabar: Like, is that the best they can do? Like, this company has access to, like, every iota of information in the entire universe.
Doug: But they can’t say, like, the average person spends six minutes looking for parking in that neighborhood or whatever.
Henry Grabar: No. Crazy. So yeah, that is a source of irritation. And then with respect to the violence, when I started this book, inspired by Don Shoup, I set up a Google alert for parking space murder, and it pings once a week. I get an alert about that. So yeah, it’s crazy. And I don’t think that it’s like parking brings out something worse in people than any other stupid thing that people fight about and kill each other over, but it is a testament to the fact that it is a source of constant conflict. And some of those conflicts turn into more serious altercations. And we put up with this system because we are reluctant to try something better.
Doug: And I think that question, “Where will I park?” obviously, it’s this anxiety-laden question. That is the question people are asking at town planning meetings or community board meetings about when affordable housing is proposed or a new daycare center. It’s “Where will I park?” It’s just that is the overriding question. Even if they can’t ask other questions, because it would be déclassé to say it, like, “I don’t want all of these ‘other’ people in my neighborhood,” they can couch it in “Where will I park?”
Henry Grabar: Yeah. And of course, that’s—that’s a story that I tell several times in the book about neighbors rallying against projects because of concern over parking. And I think when we think about parking fights, like, let’s not limit ourselves to two guys going at it with baseball bats. The real parking fight is the one that happens at the community meeting. It’s the one that happens in the city council. Those disputes are the ones that probably have the more meaningful—certainly have the more meaningful effect on the parking supply and on the housing supply, right? Because we envision new neighbors as coming in parking-sized packages. And so if you are obsessed with the parking shortage, that will lead you directly to this kind of Malthusian thinking about cities, where every new neighbor, every new business, a new school, whatever, all that gets evaluated in terms of its impact on the parking supply. And that’s no way to go through life.
Doug: Let’s talk about one of those housing developments that really did come down to fights over parking, and new neighbors and what that might do. You follow this woman named Ginger Hitzke, who’s an affordable housing developer in California.
Henry Grabar: Yeah, Ginger Hitzke is a developer in Southern California. She lives in—she lives outside of San Diego. And in 2008, she was just getting started on her own, and she found basically an RFP from a suburb of San Diego called Solana Beach saying, “We would like to build some affordable housing. We’re looking for developers who want to work with us on this.” And she said, “All right. This sounds like the job for me.”
Henry Grabar: So Ginger gets to Solana Beach and finds that what they’re trying to do is build housing for families that were evicted from a motel in the town two decades earlier, and the city has promised them housing as part of a settlement, basically. And they’ve picked out a site for it. And the site, would you believe it, is a parking lot. And so Ginger thinks, well, this’ll be easy. It’s just a square of asphalt, you know? Like, what’s the worst that could happen? Well, you will not be surprised to know they spent 10 years fighting over whether this housing should be permitted on the parking lot. And the fight that ensues, I mean, it’s—in one sense, it’s tragic because these are real people. This is not like an affordable housing lottery, these are real people who’ve been promised homes who now do not have homes because the neighbors put up such a fight about the parking lot.
Doug: And they weren’t talking about, like, 200 homes here.
Henry Grabar: They’re 10 homes.
Henry Grabar: 10 homes. 10 homes on a parking lot. But on the other hand, you know, I mean, there is something comic in it, too, because they pulled out absolutely every conceivable argument about parking you could imagine to oppose this project. You know, like, at the city council meeting where this project is discussed, it is just a parade of absurd commentary about parking. And at one point, like, this is like hour five of this hearing over again, 10 homes on a parking lot. And the city councilman says something like, “You know, these parking spots now versus those in the future, they’re just not the same. It’s like going to a baseball game in person versus watching a baseball game on TV.” And an important context to understand here is that Ginger’s not getting rid of the parking lot when she builds her housing. She’s replacing all the lost parking inside the garage that will accompany the project. And still the neighbors went ballistic.
Doug: Which also is a requirement that makes the affordable housing that she wants to build more expensive because she has to build this underground garage. And you write about all of the different environmental objections to digging in this area because it’s a coastal area. Speaking of many of those arguments and excuses that people brought out to weaponize against building on this—on this location.
Henry Grabar: Right. Yeah, it was—the degree of opposition was comical. And we have to say also that one of the questions that comes up with this Solana Beach case is: are the neighbors really concerned about parking, or are they concerned about having low-income people living in their neighborhood? And I think in the case of Solana Beach, it was pretty clear that for a lot of people it was the second thing. But I think this is actually a widespread phenomenon in which parking functions as this all-purpose excuse to stop things from being built. So sometimes, of course, the parking shortage is an objection that gets raised because people have a very real concern about the parking supply being challenged. But sometimes parking gets used as a kind of all-purpose excuse to stop things from happening that you don’t want to happen. And that’s what happened in Solana Beach. And that’s possible because we have accepted the idea that parking is such a high priority that it can be used to object to projects like this. You can’t file a lawsuit saying these poor people are gonna mess up the neighborhood, but you can file a lawsuit over parking. And so that’s what they did.
Doug: Let’s take a quick break, and we’ll be back with more Henry Grabar.
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Doug: So we were talking, Henry, about the ways in which parking can be used to thwart new development, but I thought—I was really struck by one story that you had of a Baptist pastor in Chicago named Nathan Carter, because there’s nothing really about his story that anybody is objecting to, but he just gets caught up in sort of a labyrinth of very onerous parking requirements to open up a church.
Henry Grabar: Nathan Carter is the pastor of a Baptist church, and he has a vision for this church, which is that it’s gonna be a neighborhood church. And this is apparently a big thing, this idea that the megachurch represents a kind of mistake in how people think about their membership in a church, and about the church’s relationship to the community, because a megachurch is, like, pretty isolated, it’s pretty far from where people live and often, like, all the community facilities are included, like there might be, like, a gym or a library. And so you go there and you can kind of spend the whole day there. And Nathan Carter’s idea was to have a neighborhood church where people who were in the church, who were in the congregation, would commit to living in Chicago, and to staying in Chicago and living near the church and being a part of a community that existed not just on Sunday mornings. And when I was there, I saw that. Like, we went and we played touch football in the park. And I was like, “This is amazing.” This is like—it represents a kind of lost idea of finding community in the city. But Carter ran into trouble with the parking requirements.
Doug: How much parking does he need to have for this church? And how big was the church supposed to be?
Henry Grabar: This church is for, give or take, 150 people, and it requires 18 parking spots. And you might think, well, 18 parking spots. How hard can it be to find 18 parking spots? But, you know, this church is early-20th century urbanism, comes right up to the sidewalk, no setback, no parking lot. And it’s in a city neighborhood. And a parking lot with 18 spots that is unused is not that easy to find. And of course, it’s supposed to be next to the property. And when Carter hears this, his lender won’t give him the money to buy the property, and he gets stuck. And somebody in his congregation goes to him and says, “You know what? Maybe it’s a sign from God. Maybe—maybe we’re not supposed to be here. Maybe this isn’t the church for us.” But of course, it wasn’t God. It was the city of Chicago parking requirements. [laughs]
Doug: Right. Which are basically as if they’re handed down by Moses, that the lender is going through line by line the city code saying, “Well, you don’t meet this requirement, so we can’t lend you the money.”
Henry Grabar: Yeah. And so then he gets into this conflict with the city of Chicago, and he’s working with them for years to find an appropriate parking lot. Finally finds one that he can rent that’s a half mile away, and he’s forced to pay thousands of dollars to lease this parking lot. Nobody who goes to their church ever parks there because parking is not that hard to find on a Sunday morning.
Doug: Well, that’s what I was so amazed by with this story. 18 spots. If 18 people suddenly descended upon my neighborhood, our neighborhood where we are right now, you wouldn’t notice 18 new drivers circling. And the neighborhood that you’re describing could have easily absorbed 18 cars searching for parking.
Henry Grabar: Yeah. And they did, right?
Henry Grabar: Because before he bought the church, like, people were coming to the church and they were parking and they figured it out, right? But the city of Chicago stopped him. And I think one thing Carter realized is that this was his moment of Shoupian awakening, looking at the city of Chicago parking requirements and realizing this makes no sense. Theaters, for example, that have fewer than 150 seats require no parking in Chicago. Which is great. You know, like, you want to start a theater in a—little black box theater in a busy Chicago neighborhood? Go for it, right? Like, we’re not gonna make you, like, demolish the building next door and build a garage. But his church, on the other hand, required these 18 parking spots. Similarly, libraries, no parking for the first 4,000 square feet. His church is smaller than 4,000 square feet, and he still needs 18 parking spots. So he sues, and he says this is a violation of the First Amendment. [laughs]
Doug: Wow. Against freedom of religion?
Henry Grabar: Yeah.
Henry Grabar: This is discrimination against the church. Frankly, I don’t think it’s that complicated. Like, I don’t think that anybody’s, like, singling out religion as being a use that requires lots of parking. In fact, I think many parking planners would say, like, houses of worship are the last places you want to properly park. Because—and I say “properly park,” I mean, like, provide the parking for, because they only get used most of the time once a week.
Henry Grabar: So it’s like one of the—one of the least efficient—we’re talking about sharing parking—could not be less efficient than having a church build a gigantic parking lot that only gets used on Sunday mornings. But at any rate, this story has sort of a happy ending.
Doug: Yeah. How long does it take for him to get the resolution that he wants?
Henry Grabar: Well, it takes him two years to close on the church building, because he’s in litigation and the city’s negotiating with him. And they’re saying, “Okay, you can—we’ll extend the radius in which you can hunt for this parking lot you’re gonna lease.” And he finally inks a 10-year lease on a parking lot, you know, just to comply with these rules. And the seller who previously was planning to sell him two buildings, raised the price, and he only ended up being able to afford one building. That’s a cost.
Henry Grabar: That’s a real—that’s a real cost associated with these parking requirements. But the good news is that Chicago ended up eventually changing their tune.
Doug: And the good news about Chicago is they have perfectly managed their parking supply. Nothing ever went wrong after that.
Henry Grabar: [laughs]
Doug: No, as you talk about in the book, and I think as our listeners are probably aware, Chicago very famously privatized, sold off its parking meters to private equity, and essentially left a lot of money on the table for this undervalued asset that it didn’t even know—as we were talking about, about bad management—didn’t even really know what the price and the demand was for this asset that they had. Let’s talk about that deal for a little bit.
Henry Grabar: Yeah. So in 2008, the recession is bearing down, and Mayor Richard Daley in Chicago has been interested in privatizing city assets, and talks about this a lot as, like, one of the ways that cities can get smarter and get ready to compete in the 21st century and all that is by selling off these assets to private companies who presumably will manage them better and more efficiently. And the city will get money, and people will get better services and everybody wins.
Henry Grabar: So he goes and solicits offers to privatize Chicago’s 36,000 parking meters. And for reasons that remain a little opaque, they decide that the term of the lease should be 75 years. So almost a century of parking meter revenue. And Morgan Stanley wins the bidding with a bid of $1.156 billion. And I think Daley and everybody else in Chicago pretty much looks at this and says, “Oh, my God, $1-billion for our parking meters? Hell, yeah! And if we wanted to raise property taxes, this will plug a hole in the city budget. It’s amazing.” But, you know, there were some dissenting voices, and what they said was, like, maybe we should do a study? Maybe we should figure out how much parking could be worth? And indeed, when the inspector general analyzes the deal and his report comes out the next year, they learn that Chicago leased its parking meters for 75 years for a price that was at least $1-billion short of their true value.
Doug: In many ways, to get back to the title of your book, How Parking Explains the World it explains the politics of Chicago, because this essentially cut short the Daley legacy that has defined Chicago for so long. And Richard M. Daley, the mayor at the time, you can arguably blame his exit from politics on this deal.
Henry Grabar: People say it was the worst decision of his mayoralty, and the thing that he is best known for. And I don’t know, you know, he was mayor for 20 years. A lot of things happened. But I think the thing about parking, right, is that for people who live in Chicago, this is just a constant source of irritation that the parking meter rates have become super, super expensive. And often on commercial strips in Chicago, when the parking meters are in effect there’s lots of empty spaces because people do not like to park there. And so they’re not being managed to use the street parking in the most efficient manner. They’re being managed to raise as much money as possible. And that’s because there’s a—you know, a company, Chicago Parking Meters, LLC, that’s in charge of the meters.
Doug: And one of the things that you talk about that I really appreciated is not just that Chicago left all this money on the table, or that people are forking over money to a private company when it could be going back to the city but, you know, while other cities were installing bus lanes and bike lanes and parklets and things like that, Chicago really was restricted because if they want to put in a bus lane, someone wants to throw a block party, well, that’s lost revenue for the parking corporation essentially, that has to be made up.
Henry Grabar: So every time Chicago wants to make changes to the streets, it has to negotiate with CPM LLC and figure out how much revenue is going to go missing from these parking meters. And so they start basically getting a bill from this company that has, you know, just paid them a billion dollars. And all of a sudden Chicago’s getting these additional bills that are starting to amount to, you know, $20 million a year, saying you’re messing with the parking meters in a way that’s reducing our revenue. And $20 million a year is what they had been making from the entire system, all 36,000 meters, before they were privatized. They had basically given up control over their streets and their ability to do all this stuff: bike lanes, bus lanes, ticker tape parades, is compromised by the fact that they have to negotiate with this company. And they essentially gave up control of the curb for 75 years.
Doug: So the sort of counterexample to that in the way that a city kind of took back parking and put it to better use is embodied in the story of Carol Schatz, who is a resident of Los Angeles. And she has all of these great memories of going to downtown LA as a kid. You talk to her about going to a shoe store and taking the streetcar down there. Let’s talk about Carol and adaptive reuse in downtown LA.
Henry Grabar: Yeah, so Carol in the 1990s starts working at this business association which is called the Central City Association. And it’s essentially like a group of big downtown property owners, office interests, et cetera, who advocate for trying to do something with this downtown, which at that point is pretty down on its heels, right? Like, there’s very few people who live there. There’s a lot of abandoned buildings. There’s, of course, Skid Row nearby. And somebody said about these buildings in downtown LA that they were see-through. They had been abandoned for so long that you could look in one side and see out the other because there was no interior structure in there, no cubicles, no furniture, nothing. Just you could see right through to the clear blue California sky on the other side.
Henry Grabar: And so Carol starts to think about what could we do that would reactivate this space? And in 1999, they passed this ordinance called the Adaptive Reuse Ordinance. And one of the things that the ARO does is it says, developers, if you’d like to rehab one of these properties, we are no longer going to force you to build the required number of parking spaces. And I think at the time, Schatz and everybody else who was involved in this effort thought, well, we don’t know what’s gonna happen, but couldn’t hurt.
Doug: Before we get to what happened after the ARO was passed, I think one of the interesting details that you get to in the book is that Carol is working for the organization that, to some extent, although there are obviously lots of forces at play, to some extent, they were responsible for the decline of downtown LA by trying to cater to the sort of sprawling Los Angeles motorists that were finding easy parking at the strip malls and the Victor Gruen-designed malls of the mid-century. And they said, “Well, let’s just, you know, knock down this building and put in a parking lot,” or, “When this new building goes up, let’s make sure the ground floor is all parking.” And suddenly downtown is just decimated, and there’s no real reason to come downtown because all that’s left sort of is parking and vacant lots. So there’s a really interesting irony in her assuming this role.
Henry Grabar: I found a great cartoon from the LA Times that shows a giant gorilla, like a King Kong sized gorilla swinging around the skyscrapers of downtown. And that is portrayed as the parking problem, as in, like, that’s like the monkey on the back of downtown LA is that they—you know, they absolutely must find a way of providing enough parking. And I think that’s the way a lot of downtown business interests approached the question of parking at mid-century. And they saw people going to these suburban malls and they thought, “We have got to compete with that. We’ve got to build more parking.” And they’ve succeeded. [laughs] Downtown LA has more than 100,000 parking spots, which is pretty insane.
Doug: So they passed this ARO, and then you have, you know, a couple of charismatic, gung ho real estate developers who come in and are willing to be the first people to take over some of these old buildings and rehab them for condos and that kind of stuff. And what happens?
Henry Grabar: What happens is they wind up building a ton of housing units. Almost 7,000 new apartments get built in downtown LA in the 10 years following the passage of the ARO. And just to put that in context, that is more housing than was built in the previous three decades in downtown LA combined.
Doug: Yeah, that was mind-blowing to me.
Henry Grabar: And so one of the obvious questions is, okay, but where will they park? And the people who are coming into these apartments, living in these apartments, often they drive, right? I mean, it’s Los Angeles, like, you know, you might need a car to get to work or go grocery shopping, see your friends, et cetera. But the magic of the ARO is that suddenly the parking is not required to be inside or adjacent to the building anymore. And that opens up all kinds of possibilities because downtown LA has so many parking spaces. So a lot of the people who move into these apartments, sure, they have cars, but they park them in, for example, a garage that’s mostly used by office workers during the day and it’s empty at night. So perfect for people who live in a new condo in a renovated building.
Henry Grabar: And of course, other people did drive, too. And prior to that, if you wanted to buy an apartment, a new apartment, anywhere in the city of Los Angeles, you were obligated to also pay for a parking space. And that’s not really fair to people who don’t drive, and so I think for many people who are thinking, “You know what? My family, maybe we can get by with just one car,” this would have been a very attractive proposition to be able to save a little money on the rent by living in an old converted building and maybe parking your car in a garage a couple of blocks away.
Henry Grabar: And that had an additional benefit, too, which I think is that when you include parking in every building, as you often see in, like, places where land values are really high and developers can afford to build structured parking garages on the sort of ground floors of buildings, like the sort of parking podium style, you create an environment where people go down in the elevator and they get into their car before they get on the street. So you are just vacuuming up potential street life by making people sleep right above their cars.
Henry Grabar: And I think one thing about this thing in downtown LA is that even if people were driving and they had cars, if the garage was just a couple blocks away, you’re creating this situation where people are walking and they are out in the neighborhood. And then businesses can open, they can cater to those people. And then more people come and go to those businesses. And indeed, that’s what happened in downtown LA. I mean, the resurgence of the neighborhood is not just that people started living there, but then in turn, restaurants opened, offices opened. I mean, there’s an Ace Hotel. Like, the neighborhood is completely transformed.
Doug: When we had Donald Shoup on, he was talking about the nationwide movement to end parking minimums in new construction. The LA example we just talked about was about adaptive reuse of old buildings and existing parking stock. Are there other solutions cities and developers can use to manage parking demand, to avoid building too much parking? I’m thinking of the sort of informal stuff. You know, you were talking about the dentist’s lot that can’t be used by the condo owners or, you know, the Subway sandwich shop that says only customers of Subway can park here. You did talk to a few developers who maybe the city says, “Look, you’re building to building sort of next to each other, and each of them has to have 500 parking spaces,” and they sort of like, wink, wink, and build maybe, you know, 300 in this one and 250 in that one sort of assuming that they will not be overparked and that everything will work out. But are there sort of on-the-book solutions that people and cities can turn to that really should be stuff that we’re focused on these days?
Henry Grabar: Besides tricking your lenders?
Doug: Right. Exactly. I love some of those examples in the book, but yes, legal ones.
Henry Grabar: Legal solutions. A big one that doesn’t get talked about a lot in the reform movement is just design. I think that’s really important. So even if a building is gonna provide the same number of parking spaces as it did before, if you can put those parking spaces behind the building, you could just make the building come right up to the sidewalk and make it have a front door that people can walk through. I think that just sends an enormous signal to people that this is a space that you should feel normal about entering without a car.
Henry Grabar: And there have been a few ordinances like that try and say, all right, we understand there’s gonna be parking but, like, maybe we can make it so it’s not the first thing you see, and it doesn’t impede the pedestrian experience. And perhaps the drivers are the ones who have to park behind and walk a little bit to get into the store. And I think that’s pretty low-hanging fruit, but can make a big difference in the way that a street feels, right? I mean, we’ve all experienced that when you’re walking in an area where you are separated from the buildings by these giant parking lots, and it doesn’t feel welcoming and you don’t really feel good about walking there.
Doug: And in fact, as you write in the book, when you build buildings where the entrances to the stores are at the sidewalk, where there isn’t this big setback with a giant surface parking lot, if you get to a point where a developer says, “You know what? We could take the parking and we could build a building on it,” having that parking behind the building or next to the building instead of right up on the streetscape makes it much easier to reuse it in the future.
Henry Grabar: Yeah. It’s a funny thing, right? Yeah, if you have the parking in front of the building, then you can’t build anything on that parking lot because the building will then be hidden or inaccessible as the parking lot transforms. And so this was one of—like, Chicago did this, right? Where they were like, “All right, from now on, the parking lot has to be on the side.” And that means the parking lot fronts the sidewalk, but at some point, if you want to do something with that parking lot, you can. And I think that’s progress. I saw a study of Philadelphia grocery stores, which is in the book, that locations with visually obvious parking drew more drivers than supermarkets that directly face the sidewalk. And there’s all these studies about this. Like, people, they think about the time they spend walking and the distance they’re willing to walk from a parking spot. And if they’re walking through parking lots, they will think of that time as taking longer than if they’re walking through a beautiful cityscape.
Henry Grabar: And I think you experience that in New York, too. Like, people’s standards about what constitutes a good parking spot, it’s not just because parking is so scarce that we are willing to settle for things that would never fly in Atlanta or Hartford. It’s also because the urban environment here is really pleasant, and it’s nice to walk four blocks in a nice neighborhood and do a little window shopping and little people watching and stop for coffee and whatnot. And if you’re forcing people to walk through a landscape of lots and garages, well naturally they’re not gonna be too psyched about walking 10 minutes.
Doug: So I said at the beginning that this was also a very entertaining book. It’s not just for the policy wonks, it really is a great read. And you have a fantastic chapter about crime and parking garages, and parking garages being sort of the perfect nexus of both tax evasion and money laundering.
Henry Grabar: Yeah, You know, one of the absolute best sources for this book were parking auditors. It’s like one of those jobs you don’t learn about when you’re a kid. Like, they don’t exist in Busy Town. But it is a real job out there, and it’s a hard job because it’s really hard to figure out how long cars have been parked. Now there’s this magazine called Parking Today, which is sort of like the public sphere of the commercial garage industry.
Doug: The swimsuit issue is really not something anybody wants to look at, but continue. Easy joke, I know. Sorry.
Henry Grabar: This is really advanced. Advanced parking is when you get your Parking Today subscription. It’s free, by the way, so you could check it out. But the editor is named John Van Horn, and he has a side thing that he does, which is he writes these detective novels about a hardboiled PI, you know, like a Raymond Chandler character who’s involved in parking. John Van Horn has this great passage in one of these books where he sums up the temptations of commercial parking, which by the way for years was the largest cash business in the United States. And that’s part of what we’re talking about here is all the cash that’s just floating around. And so Van Horn writes, “Parking is a cash business. No one will ever make you account for all the money. There’s no inventory to list and track, so unless you are knowledgeable about the parking business, there is no way to prove just how much money is collected on any given day. In parking, you are renting space by time. Who knows how many cars come and go, and how long they stay? So although you actually collect, say, $225 on a given day, who says you can’t put $750 or $1,000 in the bank? At that moment, the additional $525 or $775, which may be the result of a bank robbery or numbers running, becomes perfectly legitimate. You pay your taxes, you buy a house or a limo or whatever.”
Doug: It really—that was one of the best parts of the book. It was so entertaining.
Henry Grabar: [laughs] And just to be clear, like, that’s the case for money laundering, but there’s also a case for theft. Like, you could just flip that argument around and say, nobody knows how many cars are there so, you know, you may take in $500 a day, but you could just report to the IRS that you only took in $100 a day and take that extra $400 and put it in your closet.
Doug: Yeah, I love that, because exactly, like, you could have a lot that fits a hundred cars, and you can either say you parked a hundred cars or you can say you parked 50. Either way, you’re sort of taking it all to the bank.
Henry Grabar: And that happens, right?
Henry Grabar: I mean, like one of the stories in the book is about the Philadelphia parking—the airport parking scandal, which is sort of like Philadelphia’s version of the Chicago parking meter deal in the sense that it is—it was in its time regarded as the great scandal, one of the greatest rip offs in Philadelphia history. And that’s exactly what they did, right? I mean, they ran this scam at the airport for years where they essentially just cooked the books and pretended that they weren’t collecting as much money as they actually were. And they literally stuffed their pockets with cash and took it home.
Doug: Okay, so like I said, it’s a very entertaining book. It’s very informative, but I actually found it to be a very optimistic book, which is not always the case with talking about our streets and the fights that erupt over change. I mean, first of all, there’s just the existence of this book itself, which gave me hope. This book would not have existed in its current form 10 years ago. There wouldn’t have been as much interest. I think it takes someone with your talent to really turn it into something as entertaining and interesting as it is. So there’s that.
Doug: But, you know, you start the book with all of these fights over parking that you see in the literal sense, but also in Ginger Hitzke’s case of trying to build affordable housing, and the neighbors and the community coming out and saying, “Nope, not enough parking.” But you end in a place where people are having new conversations about the curb or parking garages or surface parking lots and what they could be used for. And you talk about these political, and really the cultural shift that has led so many cities to start rethinking, “Hey wait, we’ve got this supply of real estate, and we’re not managing it or using it in the best possible way.” What do you think changed? Obviously, there’s the pandemic, which really was a seismic shift, but what else changed?
Henry Grabar: I think there are two reasons that this is a hot topic right now. The first of them is housing. Housing affordability has become the dominant issue in so many areas of American life. I mean, it is literally reshaping the geography of the country as people move between cities and states in search, not of better jobs, but of cheaper housing. And that’s a new phenomenon, and it’s not a good one. And one thing that we’ve learned about parking minimums is that they make it really, really challenging to build affordable housing. They make regular housing more expensive. They make it hard to build housing on infill parcels, missing middle housing, all this stuff.
Henry Grabar: So the awareness of housing affordability as a serious political issue has pushed a lot of reformers, I think, to get interested in this space and ask, “Hey, why am I paying an extra 15 percent in rent on my apartment for this parking space that I don’t want and I didn’t ask for?” So I talked to a developer in Charlotte, North Carolina, and I know Charlotte is nobody’s idea of either a city with expensive housing costs or a city where lots of people want to ride their bikes and walk everywhere. I mean, it’s famous for sprawl and for car dependency and all that. And this guy, this developer, Clay Grubb, he wrote this editorial in The Charlotte Observer where he just made the case, and he said, “If I build a 300-unit apartment building, it’s gonna cost me $75 million. If I build that same apartment building and I don’t have to build parking, it costs me only $60 million. So I’m gonna save $15 million by not building parking, and that’s gonna make the average monthly rent $250 cheaper.”
Henry Grabar: So he just makes this case right there in the newspaper, and I think that’s an appealing proposition for a lot of people. They may say, “You know what, I’ll take my chances with the $250 and I’ll figure out where to park my car later. And that way, you know, if times get tough, you know, at least my rent is low.” And I think that’s a very appealing proposition even in places like Charlotte, which we don’t typically think of as being a place with super expensive housing.
Henry Grabar: The second one is climate. There’s been this great reversal in the way people think about parking. In the beginning, people thought not having enough parking causes traffic, and so we need to build more parking to get rid of the traffic. But obviously, it hasn’t gone that way. [laughs] If you build so much parking absolutely everywhere, then you have not only created a subsidy for car ownership, but we created an environment where it’s impossible to do anything but drive, then you are going to have a great deal of traffic indeed. And I heard from a chief of staff to a city councilman in Chicago who put this really well, and he said, “If your primary concern is traffic, and your primary request is parking, you need to understand that those things are at cross-purposes.” Study after study show that the more parking you build, the more people are gonna own cars, the more they’re gonna drive them and ultimately the more traffic you’re gonna have on the roads. And I think people have realized that there are a tremendous number of externalities associated with all this traffic, which you guys talk about on the podcast all the time, so I don’t need to tell you. But crashes, pedestrian fatalities, carbon emissions, local particulate pollution, all this stuff is associated with traffic. And so to the extent that parking is the easiest way to control the amount of traffic, parking is the place that you need to look to reform.
Doug: Henry Grabar, thank you for coming back on The War on Cars. I really appreciate it.
Henry Grabar: Thanks for having me.
Doug: Henry Grabar’s new book, Paved Paradise: How Parking Explains the World is available now. It really is fantastic. I recommend it to everybody. Henry, thanks a lot.
Henry Grabar: My pleasure.
Doug: You can support independent booksellers and pick up a copy of Henry’s books, plus books by other podcast guests at our official Bookshop.org page. I’ll put a link in the show notes.
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Doug: We also want to thank Rad Power Bikes and the Harvard University Graduate School of Design Executive Education. We’ll put links to all the new offerings from Rad Power Bikes and information on how you can register for Jeff Speck’s Walkable Cities course in the show notes.
Doug: This episode was recorded by Josh Wilcox at the Brooklyn Podcasting Studio. It was edited by me. Our theme music is by Nathaniel Goodyear. I’m Doug Gordon, and on behalf of my co-hosts, Aaron Naparstek and Sarah Goodyear, this is The War on Cars.