Urban planning, like most disciplines, endures its fair share of fads and passing fancies, many of which the advocates manage to elevate to temporary orthodoxy. And if “temporary orthodoxy” seems like an oxymoron, it shouldn’t require a great deal of introspection to realize that many orthodoxies remain doctrinaire for about a decade. And then they fizzle. In fact, the more doctrinaire they become, the more likely they will eventually reveal their own iatrogenic shortcomings—the unintended consequences that are worse than the socioeconomic or design problem the proponents originally intended to solve. Excess parking is an example where the scar tissue is obvious; the American landscape is filled with oversized and underutilized parking lots.
But that’s only one planning fad out of many.
Case in point: virtually no major urban initiative from the 1960s, a time when a growing majority of the public recognized that our historic urban centers were in a precipitous decline, has held ground as a remotely viable solution up to the present present. The follies of the 1960s include Urban Renewal, a slum clearance effort that bulldozed blocks upon blocks of dilapidated but historically interesting buildings. Another 60s dud was high-rise public housing, often the replacement for the demo’d slums, concentrating poverty even more perniciously than what came before. And then came all the auto-friendly initiatives; excess parking was jut the start. The Eisenhower-era Interstate Highway System, a brilliant tool for linking the vast expanse between urbanized areas. But advocates for saving the country’s floundering downtowns thought it would be prudent to extend these thoroughfares right through the heart of city centers, ripping up more historic fabric. By doing so, transportation planners intended to facilitate people’s commutes from booming new suburbs to their offices or downtown shopping, but it only impelled more people to move out, with the offices and shops eventually following them, where the excess parking encouraged 100% automobile dependency. Virtually every urban revitalization effort from the 1960s exacerbated the decline that prompted even greater flight to the suburbs in the 1970s.
The most recently planted urban revitalization seeds might yield a bumper crop in twenty years. But I am not to sanguine about the attempts to reintroduce rent control, for example; there’s nothing sufficiently different about the efforts in 2020 that’ll fend off the iatrogenic pressure on landlords to cut costs in other ways, usually through deferred maintenance. And the elimination of single-family zoning in certain cities, thereby enabling duplex and triplex houses built in lots customarily hosting detached single-family homes, routinely fails to recognize that high-density housing is attainable in extremely small lots, a reform initiative far less radical and thus less polarizing. Most people buy into single-family neighborhoods with the expectation that they will always have one neighbor on each side of them, not two or three. And if they decide they don’t like this, they will find greener pastures. Literally.
Amidst all these ill-fated fads, I can think of one that planners currently seek to resolve for which I harbor no complaints: excess parking, of course. Many cities are eliminating mandates for parking minima associated with new developments, especially in urban centers. Historically, zoning codes have required a certain minimum number of parking spaces associated with a development—a correlation that will ensure that no commercial, office, or multifamily residential project gets built without also supplying enough parking to sustain it. Far too often, though, those minimum requirements (correlated to housing units, or a certain multiple of leasable square footage) is far too generous, and it also presumes that the developers can’t determine the suitable level of parking on their own. (A smart developer will provide what’s needed, but no more; it costs money and generates diminishing returns when excessive.) As a result, because of parking minima, most developments have provided excess parking—far more than they will ever need, passing the excess costs onto the consumer and resulting in a fatuous waste of space. I can think of no better example than at the Plaza at Landmark in Fairfax County, Virginia.
This very run-of-the-mill shopping center sits squarely at the junction of multiple major highways in the thick of Washington DC suburbia in Fairfax County, Virginia. It’s tough to assess metrics using exclusively eyeballs, so I’ll defer to this commercial assessment to conclude that it features about 430,000 leasable square feet. Based on classification of typologies provided by the International Council of Shopping Centers (ICSC), the Plaza at Landmark would most likely be a power center, featuring at least three anchors and serving a trade area of between five and ten miles. The immediate community surrounding this “enhanced strip mall” is loosely labeled Lincolnia (it is not a town or township–merely a census designated place). Lincolnia is immediately adjacent to the City of Alexandria, and while much of Lincolnia is residential, the site of the Plaza at Landmark is prime commercial/retail thanks to its proximity to the I-395 interchange with Little River Turnpike (Virginia State Route 236), as well as Van Dorn Street (SR 401), and Lincolnia Road (SR 613). A few years ago, I featured the now-demolished Landmark Mall just on the other side of the busy interchange; at the time it still offered a quite well-maintained Sears (the only operational store in the entire mall). Lincolnia is most likely a transitional area, not only because of the convergence of arterials or its border between a city and a county, but also because it’s a comparatively moderate income area in Fairfax—however, since Fairfax County is one the nation’s wealthiest, “moderate income” by this region’s standards is still upper-middle income or even upper income using the metrics in most of the rest of the nation.
The high concentration of apartment buildings in Lincolnia, most of which are now forty or fifty years old, has attracted high numbers of immigrants, who, in a booming region like Washington DC, must balance the allure of the robust job market against the home prices. Comparatively affordable Lincolnia is extremely ethnically diverse, with no clear racial majority, and a popular place for starter families due to its easy access to rentals, shopping, and highways that lead all over the metro. The Plaza at Landmark is nothing special at all in an aesthetic sense, as the photo above clearly conveys. But it offers an interesting mix of familiar national brands (mostly in the larger, anchor tenants) followed by a huge variety of mom-and-pops with an international bent. Though it’s an aging strip mall in an area that is probably more working class than it was forty years ago, it still seems to be doing well, with near-complete occupancy despite an outdated presence and a paucity of landscaping.
That said, the Plaza at Landmark has among the most insane oversupply of parking that I’ve ever seen. It is a typical L shape but with a few stray outparcel and one smaller row of about a dozen in-line stores (visible in the horizon in the photo above), ultimately creating the appearance of a U shape that frames that excess parking. The anchor tenants at this point in time include Giant Foods, Hobby Lobby, Ross Dress for Less, Marshall’s, Overstock Furniture, and Total Wine and More, probably the only somewhat upmarket tenant. The high density of population nearby, its transit access (a bus stop right at the entrance), and the variety of storefront sizes almost guarantee that it never struggle to attract tenants. And it’s clearly a busy place even on Sundays, when a major anchor Hobby Lobby is always closed.
Yet it also has plenty of parking, and doesn’t seem to face any danger of filling up, especially as one gets farther from the main L and reaches the secondary row of shops that create a quasi-U.
Most remarkable of all, however, is that, even amidst that excess parking right out front, it’s got a mammoth parking garage tucked in the middle of it, with an entry point in the back.
It’s visible there with the green sign, a bit to the right of the Ross Dress for Less storefront windows: a pedestrian cut-through that provides direct access to the garage. And it’s not just any garage; it’s got four floors. Here’s the rooftop; hopefully my photos capture its considerable size.
Equally distinctive are those enormous apartment buildings, which are abundant in northern Virginia and the DC suburbs overall. They’re everywhere; I’ve never seen any other metro with such a surfeit of what look like 5,000-unit apartment complexes. It’s almost like the suburbs have to compensate for the lack of high-rise buildings in the District of Columbia itself, prompted by height restrictions. The presence of these apartment buildings almost guarantees that a heavily suburban area like Lincolnia has a higher population density than its counterparts in other metros, which in turn means more people nearby to support retail.
But did Plaza at Landmark ever really need a four-story garage? Notice how empty it is on this rooftop.
Peering out over the edge, one can look down and see the primary, surface level excess parking lot featured in some of the earlier photos in this article.
Not terribly busy on a Sunday afternoon, and while I concede Saturdays are probably busier, the normal condition of the shopping center is bustling; it is at or near 100% occupancy, and always has been during five or so years I’ve been aware of it.
Perhaps the lower floors of that garage are a bit more active? After all, only in an extreme event would people need to wend their way up those ramps to the very top of a four-story garage. Going down one level, however, reveals the same situation.
Completely empty excess parking. Could the second floor at least bear some fruit?
One car. To be perfectly frank, it’s amazing that the property managers still service this garage with lighting, and that they still leave it open in general. There seems to be no purpose to keep it illuminated or even accessible on a typical day. With this level of desolation, it’s a potential hotbed for illegal activity. Or do the managers hot-wire the garage with cameras? Not likely given the cost and lack of return. I’ve certainly used busier garages, which still seemed like a potential place for hiding stolen cars (if the dust-covered Rolls Royce and Alfa Romeo were any evidence).
I’ll admit I didn’t go and count all the spaces to the surface lot and garage at Plaza at Landmark. And even if I did, I wouldn’t be able to calibrate it to parking demand based on the uses involved; it’s hard to say if there might be special liquidation sales or major events where the garage really does get a fair amount of use. All I can do is form empirical conclusions, and those are telling me that this is a successful shopping center that still has about three times as much parking as it would typically need. Perhaps Plaza at Landmark is a successful center because of that excess parking—that it has served as an amenity to attract new tenants? Maybe. But most shopping center tenants will unconsciously shy away from leases at strip malls with a plethora of parking; if it has a persistently empty look, customers unconsciously form negative conclusions about the place. A perfectly sized parking lot is best: it looks thriving without making customers weave in and out of the aisle to find a parking bay.
I continue to speculate why all that excess parking. Perhaps, at one point in time, the Plaza at Landmark had a “destination tenant”—one of those special retailers that are fairly uncommon (often only one per metro) and offer such distinctive products or unique services that people come from 100 miles and spend hours there. IKEA and Bass Pro Shops come to mind, though neither one is rare enough these days to have quite the magnetism that they once did. And neither was likely ever a tenant at Plaza at Landmark; unless some of the anchor tenants have subdivided; the floor space is too small.
Again, why all that parking? It could have been a street reorientation. The garage’s primary entrance is off of Lincolnia Road, which, though an important collector, is still nowhere near as prominent as Little River Turnpike, the entrance with the most visible signage, to which the entrances and storefront windows mostly face. But maybe various traffic engineering efforts shifted focus away from Lincolnia Road, so that widening of other roads like Beauregard Street only reduced Lincolnia Road’s prominence. But its prominence in the past might have helped elevate the primacy of the garage—a primacy that’s gone today. Transit might also have been a factor. Bus routes are now prevalent in the area, but they might not always have been, so more people may have driven to Plaza at Landmark than they do now. And pedestrian crossings, though still suburban in nature (these are six-lane highways after all) are still thorough enough that some of the residents of those massive apartment buildings probably walk to their shops—something they may not have done in the past, when ped crossings at interstate exit ramps were deficient.
While I could ruminate until I’m blue in the face, I think the biggest reason Plaza at Landmark has all this parking is a reflection of the time period. Most likely dating from the 1970s, developers and city officials simply didn’t care if they were designing and legislating for a wretched excess of impervious surface. Fairfax County may have set the bar high for parking minima, ensuring that every shopping center had more than enough parking bays. County leadership wanted to make sure everyone could get parking even if some of those spaces get used one day a year (probably Black Friday). So the parking minima were generous and sought to minimize the risk that anyone would ever have to spent more than 90 seconds looking for a space. And we witness the results of that excess parking today: a completely unnecessary four-story garage. At least it’s a good place to hide a stolen Aston Martin.