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St. Louis’ Outdated Zoning Mandates Excessive Parking

January 21, 2009 Downtown 22 Comments

Last week, while at Penn Station at Gravois Plaza, I look out the window and I’m struck by the massive amount of parking.  Parking so far away from most stores it has likely never seen any use.

Excessive parking along the Eastern edge of the suburban Gravois Plaza.
Excessive parking along the Eastern edge of the suburban Gravois Plaza.

When I pulled away I went that direction to get another view:

Looking North along the Eastern edge of Gravois Plaza
Looking North along the Eastern edge of Gravois Plaza

The excessive parking you see is either mandated by the zoning code or used as filler space by the developer.  Either way it is unnecessary, a waste of land and a bad decision for the environment by causing more water runoff.  From above it is really stark:

Aerial view of Gravois Plaza.
Aerial view of Gravois Plaza.

For a hint of the excesses required by out 60 year old out of date zoning code let’s take a look at Parking regulations (26.40.030) within the F-Neighborhood Commercial Zone (26.40)

The parking in the “E” Multiple Family Dwellings District, except as modified by Section 26.40.040 shall apply. (Ord. 62588 § 5 (part), 1992.)

26.40.040 Specific parking and loading regulations.

In addition, the following uses shall provide parking space within 1,000 feet of the main building:

A. Retail stores within floor area of more than 3,000 square feet shall provide parking space sufficient to accommodate one motor car for each 700 square feet of floor area in excess of 3,000 square feet which is actually used for the selling of merchandise.

B. Banks and office buildings with floor area of more than 7,500 square feet shall provide parking space sufficient to accommodate one motor car for each 1,250 square feet of floor area in excess of 7,500 square feet which is actually used for banking purpose or for offices.

C. Restaurants, bars, taverns, and exhibition halls with more than 1,000 square feet of floor area shall provide parking space sufficient to accommodate one motor car for each 200 square feet of floor area in excess of 1,000 square feet which is actually used by patrons or customers for such purposes.

D. Theaters shall provide parking space sufficient to accommodate one motor car for each 12 seats.

E. Mortuaries and funeral homes shall provide parking space sufficient to accommodate three motor cars for each chapel or parlor.

I. Private clubs and lodges shall provide parking space sufficient to accommodate one motor car for each one hundred (100) square feet of floor area used for purposes of dancing, assembly or dining. (Ord. 62588 § 5 (part), 1992.)

Did the authors of this code, back in the 1940s, have some great wisdom about parking?  No!  They were guessing.  They were enamored by the “motor car” and wanted to ensure if they gave up the streetcar and bought one they’d be able to park it where they liked.  They wanted to remove on-street parking because they felt they needed all the lanes available.  So for sixty years we’ve been building massive parking lots because guys who are long dead made bad guesses about how much parking would be necessary in the future.

Furthermore,  developers are free to build beyond the too high minimums.  Desco bragged about having more parking than required at Loughborough Commons.  Oh Boy!

The Board of Aldermen need to stop focusing on stop signs and petty “constituent service” and authorize a complete overhaul of our zoning code.  Short of a complete overhaul they need to simply remove all off-street parking mandates.  Developers & business owners will ensure they have the parking necessary to serve their customers.

Rather than parking minimums we need parking maximums.  This would cap the number of spaces provided so land is better utilized.

I don’t expect the Slay administration or the members of the Board of Aldermen to do anything about this aging and destructive code.  Rollin Stanley, the former director of Planning, wanted to update the code to bring it current with all we’ve learned in the past 60 years but we ran him off.

The code was written and adopted we had half a million more people within the city limits.  So much has changed but the city clings to this code like it is etched in stone.  Slay — pretend the zoning code is a treasured historic building and raze it!



Currently there are "22 comments" on this Article:

  1. Jim Zavist says:

    Parking in shopping centers is defined by three things, zoning (which may or may not be “right”), tenant “standards” (which also may or may not be “right”, but dictates whether most deals happen, or not), and providing for that worst case scenario, Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, followed by the month of December (when most businesses do 30%-40% of their annual business).
    Yes, it’s a waste of land, IF land is expensive. It’s also a basic cost/benefit analysis. Is it cheaper to provide surface parking (at $10,000 per space) or is it cheaper to build a parking structure (at $20,000 per space)? The break point is when the land cost exceeds ±$35/square foot, a rarity outside of downtown.
    But it’s driven, by and large, by the rational or irrational demands of residents/voters that “those people” (shoppers and/or employees) not be allowed to park in “their” neighborhoods. We know that parking is a scarce and shared resource in urban areas, and we deal with it. That’s simply not the case in suburban areas, including many suburban-feeling parts of the city. Until we get past the mindset that we somehow have a right to dictate how the public street is used in front of our single-family homes, we’re going to continue to have large, underutilized parking lots and their unintended consequence, suburban sprawl . . .

  2. Tim E says:

    The driver for change, if it is pursued aggressively, might be water driven. MSD, I believe moved into the next century by finally dictating payment for storm water services by surface area of runoff. They have a huge obligation according to mandate by the state and EPA to clean up the area rivers and creeks. Of course, who know what offset developers are given in taxes. But, I believe this a very rational way to address change for urban areas as well as start addressing the many consequences of cheap pavement. Just as their is consequences for cheap gas.

  3. dumb me says:

    MSD a help to developers? Hah! Dumb me. Any guess how long before they get all the combined sewers divided? Now there’s a shovel ready project for the Obama economic recovery plan!

  4. Tino says:

    Do I correctly understand the code you’ve quoted? It seems to say that if you have a grocery store of less than 3,000 square feet in “E” Multi Family, you need provide no parking. Over 3,000 square feet you need one parking space for every 700 sf.

    Google Earth measurements show that the Shop n Save is about 57,000 square feet, of which I’ll conservatively assume 90%, or 51,000 square feet is used for the sales floor (which the zoning code uses for space calculations).

    This is (51000-3000)/700 = 68 required parking spaces. I count about 480 spaces in the lot all together; directly in front of the Shop n Save are about 240 spaces.

    The required 68 spaces would mean about 15 spaces in each of the eight rows directly in front of Shop n Save; this is roughly from the front of the store out to the position of the red-colored cart corrals (the corrals are in the eighth space).

    Oil stains on the parking spaces suggest that about 90 to 120 spaces directly in front of Shop n Save get regular use.

    Gravois Plaza definitely has way too much parking. But I’m not sure that your assertion that this is required by the zoning is borne out by the usage pattern that can be inferred from the oil stains — particularly when you consider that Gravois Plaza probably attracts more bus-riders than most shopping centers; that, for a strip mall, it’s relatively walkable; and that it’s in the middle of what is, for St. Louis, a fairly dense residential area.

  5. Brian says:

    James Kunstler calls these “vast parking lagoons.” Zoning that mandates this much parking is so terrifyingly assbackwards and has coaxed along the wastelands of our car dependent neighborhoods. And these laws are hard to amend, since most voters see their car as an extension of their body, and anything that impedes convinient parking is seen as harmful.

  6. Jason says:

    I live about a half a block from here, not needing to cross any major streets. I just moved this fall. One of the worst things about this plaza is that is hard to walk to. I’m required to walk around from behind the stores, something I do not feel safe doing. And so, even though it would be a half-a-block walk, because there is so much open space leaving me vulnerable, I choose to drive and park. This fall I did walk to the grocery store twice, and each time I became excessively nervous walking back around the reverse sides of the stores. Probably some of the issue is that they did not make this neighborhood friendly be putting the storefronts AWAY from the neighborhood.

  7. Adam says:

    “MSD a help to developers? Hah!”
    that’s not what Tim E said, if i understand correctly. i believe he was suggesting that developers would be motivated to make smaller parking lots if they paid for sewer service by the square foot.

  8. Rob says:

    Read Leinberger’s “The Option of Urbanism.” A lot of that has to do with the developers’ funding sources. Basically, developments are funded by Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITs) which are traded on the stock market. In order for a REIT to fund your project, it has to fit into a development style (1 of 19) that can be expected to give a certain expected return. If a REIT doesn’t contain enough of these accepted types, analysts won’t give it a fair rating and it won’t trade. These styles dictate huge amounts of parking because of those peak days like New Years Eve and the day after Thanksgiving (no investor would want to turn away any customers on any day due to lack of parking).
    REITs really came about in the late 80s. No coincidence that all suburban development started to look exactly the same at right about the same time.

  9. Dennis says:

    Jim, I’m right with you on the “surban feeling parts of the city”. But I think the mindset you mention goes beyond that. It’s EVERYWHERE in this city. It always amazes me how people seem to think they OWN or at least dictate the portion of the street infront of thier homes. How well I remember the big snow we had in Jan. ’82 and all the people who parked on the street would shovel open their parking spot and then try to barricade it with chairs, sawhorses,ect. and signs saying “I dug, I park”. I consider the street infront of my home city property, which it is. It’s there for my use, but also anyone else who wants to use it. If I want a guarenteed place to park I know where I can find one and that is in my garage. Most of the people who park on the street in the neighborhoods of single family homes only do so because their garage is all crammed full of junk!
    Getting back to the parking lot situation, if you ask me just about every lot in the city is too full. Loughborough Commmons is a prime example. The busiest days of the year, Black Friday and the Saturday before Christmas, have never filled it yet. Isn’t it a shame that all those homes had to be torn down just for that excess parking space that never gets used. The Target at Hampton Village has the right idea with the underground (understore actually) parking garage, but even that is never filled. I’ve never seen it yet anyway.

  10. Mike says:

    What Jason says is very ironic. When Gravois Plaza was being redesigned we heard how it was going to rejuvinate the area with develpoment and make the area safer. Too bad the nieghborhood can’t use the plaza without getting into their cars. As far as increased safety goes the residents who aren’t getting much in new tax releif because of the TIF at Gravois Plaza, recently voted to increase their own property taxes to pay for more additional safety patrols. So much for another suburban development that was going to be the silver bullet for the problems in the Fanning neighborhood.

  11. VanishingSTL says:

    Tino is correct. Gravois Plaza has way more parking spaces than required by the City’s zoning code. According to the math of the code, for retail space the City requires 1.43 spaces per 1000 sf of space, and the first 3000 feet requires none. Most other municipalities, and most large retail developers require 4 to 5 spaces per 1000 sf of space.

    Gravois Plaza and its neighbors are the victims of the idiot developer who obviously held the typical suburban belief that you need massive amounts of parking at any shopping center without taking into account that some percentage of the shoppers would actually arrive by bus or on foot from the surrounding neighborhood.

    Yes, most of the City’s zoning code is backward and needs revising, but the 50+ year old parking standards reflect a time when city stores were smaller, more prevalent, and many shoppers still arrived on foot or by streetcar. Maybe there is a better way to write the parking requirement for an urban area, but the relatively low number of spaces required is a good thing (when developers actually follow it). Maybe it should be written to say that there is a maximum number of spaces allowed, not a minimum.

  12. Jim Zavist says:

    It can be done. About ten years ago in Denver, Safeway (a major grocery chain) wanted to replace and enlarge their store in the Capital Hill neighborhood (http://www.mapquest.com/mq/5-1_O3ijjm). The neighbors didn’t want a huge parking lot or to lose any more homes than absolutely necessary, and because the project would require rezoning, the neighbors were able to convince both City Council and the company that a smaller parking lot would work and that onstreet parking could be used to partially meet the calculated parking requirement (along with other urban design enhancements a smaller-than-normal store size). It took a strong neighborhood commitment, pro bono design assistance from the architecture community, and political leverage to make it happen, along with its competitor being extremely successful with its own limited parking 3 blocks north. The key point, much like the HV Target, was that the company had a proven record of profitability on the site, wanted to both stay in the neighborhood and to enlarge their store, and they essentially had no other viable options. It required that they get outside their typical suburban-model comfort zone and to take a real financial risk. Unfortunately, it’s a reality in probably well less than 1% of all the real estate deals out there, and cities are so desperate to attract “new” businesses, they all too-willingly accede to the companies’ “established” parking-requirement demands.

  13. Hilary says:

    Yesterday, APA hosted an audio conference on “Infrastructure, CIP, and Alternative Transportation.” There was a fair bit of good material, but specifically Fred Hansen (from Portand TriMet) and Karin Berkholtz (City of Minneapolis) talked about how they’ve changed their parking requirements to maximum, instead of minimum requirements (that very based on the type of development); to have no parking requirements at all under certain circumstances; and to require parking for bicycles.

    I think you can download the presentation here: http://www.planning.org/audioconference/ICAT – there’s also a link to other resources.

    Not that the City of St. Louis will actually change their zoning ordinance, but it’s interesting to see what the real innovators are up to.

  14. James R. says:

    I think parking in many cases has more to do with site area and control and the ability to finance buildings than really meeting any parking requirements. Gravois Plaza is a perfect case in point. They had control over the whole site but were only able to build x square feet of retail. (Able to build meaning the most they could finance, the most they thought the market could absorb, etc.) So what are you going to do with the rest of the site? You pave it. I don’t think Loughborough Commons is all that different. They got the layout they wanted for the buildings (visibility from the highway, untility access, service and loading access, etc.) and paved the rest.
    There certainly are ways to ammend the code to limit the quantity or impact of the asphalt, some have been listed above. Things like maximum parking counts, storm water detention, tree shading x percentage of parking, required landscape buffers for pedestrian protection. Lots of options out there if you can get them through.

  15. MH says:

    The calculations above are correct. The city’s zoning actually is fairly urban-minded regarding parking (compared to other suburban muni’s). The biggest problem are that these are suburban developers and they have one way of doing things and never customize anything to suit a city site. The Walgreens at Grand and Gravois is another prime example. Barely 50% of that parking lot is ever used….it still looks brand new in the unused portion. A lot of people who utilize that store arrive by bus or walk from the surrounding neighborhoods, but I seriously doubt the developer of that property studied the area prior to having his prototype architect plop the typical store on the site.

  16. MH says:

    ^The other potentially bigger problem, to add to my previous post, is that the city doesn’t utilize their current zoning to demand a maximum amount of parking. It is just as much the city’s fault as it is the lazy developers’.

  17. Cheryl Hammond says:

    The new Velocity Cafe at the corner of DeBaliviere and Pershing recently opened and has no added parking. They seem to be pushing the 1,000 square foot point where added parking is required. Perhaps they met the limit because a bicycle repair shop was also opened taking up some of the space. By contrast, across the street to the north is a pizza place with a typically large parking lot to the front and side – mostly empty. To the northwest side of the intersection is a strip mall with mostly unused parking space.

    Kayak’s at Skinker and Forest Park has a very small lot behind its building. They also have installed parking meters in this lot. I am assuming this small lot belongs to the restaurant and not the city. If so, I have never seen another place where a restaurant actually expected patrons to feed parking meters to use the restaurant – or else arrive without a private vehicle.

    James’ mention of limiting parking lot size by requiring tree shade, etc. sounds excellent. Of course, just maximum parking is also good.

  18. Adam says:

    since cheryl brought it up i’d like to add that velocity is a fantastic place/idea. coffee shop + bike rental + bike sales (coming soon they said) + bike repair right next to forest park. i hope they make it. guy talked as though business had been slow… also i am in no way affiliated with them.

  19. ms STL says:

    I’m sure the board of alderman will be looking into this problem soon….as soon as they find the missing obama poster

  20. Joe Frank says:

    The Kayak’s building at Skinker & FPP is owned by WashU, as is the parking lot behind. Kayak’s is a tenant. The meter revenue goes to WashU, and is probably set up that way to discourage park-and-ride by users of the Skinker MetroLink station. Actually, there are a lot of meters on the Danforth campus, as well as on Forsyth Blvd itself adjacent to campus, that are managed by WashU itself.

  21. Cheryl Hammond says:

    Re: Kayak’s at Skinker. Thanks, Joe, for the information that Wash U owns the building and that Kayak’s is a tenant. Interesting that Wash U uses meters to control parking on the Danforth campus and even on Forsyth Blvd. Makes you wonder how the city allows Wash U to take the revenue from parking meters on a public street.

    Per Kayak’s, I notice the ordinance does not require free parking, just parking. I assume this small lot with meters was set up for the purpose of meeting the requirement.

  22. Jesda says:

    What do you usually get? I’m all about the large cheese steak with mayo and mushrooms. The lemonade there is AWESOME.


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