Chicago’s Odd obsession with Ground Level Parking


The moss blog can sing and dance all week about the importance and benefits of making a pedestrian friendly city, but it’s hard to stay upbeat when my daily commute (walking, thank you very much) takes me past this monstrosity of ground level parking.  The new Mariano’s on this formerly-pedestrian-oriented stretch of Broadway in Lakeview has three floors of parking – two above and one below its 2nd level grocery store.

The Mariano’s Ground Level Parking Structure (oh, and it’s a grocery store)

As this Streetsblog profile of the project from last summer points out the blocky, out-of-scale building is wildly oversupplied with parking.  In fact, “over half of the building’s area will be devoted to storing and moving cars.”  That stretch of Broadway is a designated Pedestrian Street.  Streetsblog provides a great breakdown of what that means:

“The designation is intended to prevent development that encourages driving and discourages walking, biking, and transit use. It forbids the creation of new driveways, and requires that the whole building façade be adjacent to the sidewalk. The main entrance must be located on the P-Street, and at least 60 percent of the façade between four and ten feet above the sidewalk must be windows.”

The Mariano’s somehow wrangled a new driveway permit and is skating around the “windows” requirement by putting blank glass between the pedestrians and the parking but certainly anyone can see that adding a 6 story, 279 parking space, block-sized building to Broadway is pretty far from the spirit of that Pedestrian Street designation.  What gives?

Chicago does this all the time

Well, as unfortunate as it may be, this is not abnormal for Chicago.  From the much hated Four-Plus-One Apartments to Chicago’s beloved Marina City Towers we just love to stack our lives on parking. To quote Chicago Tribune critic, Blair Kamin, (via this Transitized post):

“The difference between a condo tower in New York and one in Chicago is that the Chicago tower will have a base, roughly four to nine stories tall, that houses a parking garage where condo and apartment dwellers store their cars and SUVs. The apartment floors begin only after the parking garage ends.

“It’s a small difference with large consequences. It means that in New York, you look up from the sidewalk to the second floor and you see somebody’s curtains. In Chicago, you look up and see, in most cases, a blank wall of concrete or opaque glass, because the city requires buildings to cover parking garages rather than leaving them exposed.”

But Why?

Why do we fixate on ground level parking?  Well, its cheap.  It’s easiest to construct and keeps the developer’s costs low.  It’s literally the low hanging fruit.  And it never seems to be unpopular.

Americans will drive an ironically long way for the idea of “free parking.”  Developers (and city planners) seem terrified of “driving people away” by denying them them their god given free space, with three spaces next to it (so that no one ever has to circle the lot).

But is all this parking good for us?  No.  Even for drivers, it is a terrible idea.  More parking means more traffic, more congestion, more pollution, more engines left idling. We could take our pick of proof on this one but I’ll recommend this: The Strongest Case Yet That Excessive Parking Causes More Driving.

As for stacking it over or under our buildings, that does away with some sprawl and a whole lot of empty parking lot.  But in the end, too much stacked parking is just as bad as too much surface parking.

unnecessary parking

Could there be A Happier Ending?

Here’s a better version of that story: the new Lakeview Whole Foods location was initially proposed was just one more ground level parking nightmare destined to make its new neighborhood a little more pedestrian un-friendly.  The design elevated the whole grocery store to the 2nd floor level and isolated an entire block of sidewalk with a solid concrete wall (barely disguised by optimistically rendered small trees). Image via Curbed .  whole foods designThat is the facade intended for Belmont Avenue.  What a very nice Impenetrable Brick Wall they proposed for this busy intersection.  In this case, local residents objected strongly enough that the project was actually redeveloped (slightly) to be more neighborhood and pedestrian friendly although it doesn’t entirely remove the ground level parking or the stacked store effect.  Here’s the updated version via DNAInfo:

whole foods redesign

Since we are trying to end the post on a positive note … we’ll call that a win!