The Downtowner - Episode 10: Cleveland's Surfeit of Surface Parking Lots

This is what a parking crater looks like. This one is in Cleveland's Warehouse District. [George Hahn / ideastream]
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We can talk all we want about the way surface parking lots dominate Downtown Cleveland's landscape -- and George and I do in this episode of "The Downtowner" with Streeetsblog editor Angie Schmitt and Cleveland State University historian J. Mark Souther -- but pictures are much more persuasive.

Take a look at this GIF from Rustwire.com featuring a vintage photo of the Warehouse District when it had warehouses, and one showing it as the Parking Lot District it is today.  The animated image went viral when it first appeared in 2010.

A view of Cleveland's Warehouse district, from a neighborhood with warehouses to one with parking lots.

It's stunning to see how dense the neighborhood used to be, before corporate flight and de-industrialization took its toll.  Why were they torn down?  Souther tells us that by the 1960s and  1970s, these buildings were seen as blighted and out-of-date. 

"The demand for these places as in-town living, as a hip place to live, is not there in time to save these buildings.  Nor are they valuable anymore for the industrial and warehousing functions that they had played in yesteryear.  So they're caught in this middle ground, which is a dangerous place for buildings," he said.  They came down, and surface lots went up in their stead as low-maintenance, money-making placeholders until a more lucrative opportunity came along.

All these decades later, and ten years out from the Great Recession, we're still waiting.  Much of the Warehouse District -- perhaps as much as 50 percent -- remains dedicated to surface parking as this Google map satellite view shows.  The district proper is south of the Shoreway (State Route 2). 

An aerial view of downtown Cleveland.  The areas in green are parking lots. [George Hahn / ideastream]

"If you do take an overhead look of these parking craters, and not just Cleveland but a lot of cities, the visual impact is kind of stunning," said Schmitt, who writes about transportation alternatives on Streetsblog.  

Schmitt raises an important point.  Cleveland is not alone in its downtown "parking craters."  A film she helped produce on parking craters highlighted surface lots in New Haven, Conn., Houston and Dallas.  Cleveland's Warehouse District crater, which includes a huge lot adjacent to Public Square, in the heart of the city, got top billing.

It provides a different perspective —literally—on an amenity that many Cleveland commuters and visitors believe is vital to their enjoyment of Downtown. Even residents require parking space, despite their proximity to the RTA's bus, trolley and rail lines.  A recent survey of residential building property managers by the Downtown Cleveland Alliance found about 80 percent were signed up for parking privileges.  Those figures include yours truly.  My husband and I both have cars, and we keep them in a surface lot near our apartment building in the Warehouse District, Ground Zero for these parking craters.  

"If you develop [them], you're going to lose those spots," Mike from Delaware, Ohio, told me.  "And you're gonna drive more action and more traffic TO downtown."  

What to do?  Chris Angeletta of Fort Wayne, Ind., said the city invested in building parking structures, which are expensive, in order to free up its surface lots for development.  Others, including a caller whose comment is captured in a sound clip you can listen to, below, say it's not an either/or proposition.  Parking structures providing much-needed space can be built along with apartments and retail, as these surface lots get developed.  It's what developer Scott Wolstein  is doing in Phase III of his re-development of the Flats.

Growth in population and economic vitality doesn't have to mean a growth in cars.  In Portland, Ore., city councilmembers recently approved a plan to take OUT curbside parking spaces and add more bus and bike lanes to avoid congestion. 

But such unconvential thinking and strategizing takes a lot of political will and public persuasion.

"As it currently stands, there's a lot of days I'll go downtown and the majority of lots are full when I get there," Rochelle from Cleveland Heights told us.  "I think it'd be even worse if they took the lots away."

Rochelle was responding to our shout-out for your thoughts on this question: Would you be willing to give up surface parking for more economic development? Hear what others had to say in the audio below. 

 

We encourage you to post your own thoughts on our Facebook page.  

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