Check out this photo of an old discount bakery and it’s little parking lot. How much affection do you feel towards this place? Does it give you the warm fuzzies?
How about this parking lot with its chain link fence? Is your spirit uplifted by the little colored flags on the razor wire? What do you think this place does to the property values next door and across the street? Do you think people pay extra to live close to this lot so they can bask in its toasty sodium vapor flood light glow at night?
How about this place? Do you think the city collects loads of tax revenue from this lot? How many people do you think are employed here? What do you imagine this lot contributes to the livability and vitality of the neighborhood?
Would you describe this old auto repair shop as more of a wilderness protection area or a historical preservation site? It could go either way really. Hmmmm?
How many people live on this parcel of land? How many local families are strengthened by having this place right around the corner? How many tourists line up to take their photos in front of this place since it’s so unique?
Here are the buildings all around the crappy low grade auto-oriented properties. Which land use type do you think is more economically productive for the city? These lots were once home to similar buildings that were torn down in the mid 20th Century rush to accommodate the automobile. It made sense at a time when city property continually lost value and the population declined. People were driving off to new suburbs by the thousands. But now that the market has boomeranged back the city needs to restore the previous land use pattern and fill in these “missing teeth” in the urban fabric.
Each of these new buildings was constructed on an old parking lot, aging gas station, or outdated fast food outlet. There are things about these new buildings that I like. They’re head and shoulders above what was on these lots before. And there are things about them that I don’t love. They’re big and bulky and lack the fine grain texture of the older more intimate building stock. But overall, it’s a huge improvement.
Again, here’s a reminder of the kind of buildings that were there before. This quarter acre right in the center of town is being used as a car wash in a city with a massive housing shortage. Is this really the best use of the territory?
Some of you out there are probably thinking that you would actually prefer the parking lots to some hulking new development. Perhaps you simply don’t enjoy living in town and/or really hate being a pedestrian. North America is absolutely full of places where you can have all the space, greenery, and tarmac you want. This whole country is practically waterproofed with pavement from coast to coast.
You don’t have to live in a city at all if you don’t want to. But if you do choose to live in an urban environment you’re probably not there for the ample free parking and ready access to drive-thru burgers. You’re more likely looking for the kind of vitality and opportunity that you won’t find at a car wash in the suburbs.
There will no doubt be others of you who think all these new buildings are a blight on the traditional historic fabric of the city. Check out this six story building from the 1920’s. It’s much bigger than it’s three story Edwardian neighbor on the corner.
Now look at the one story shops on other side of the six story building.
And check out the burger joint across the street.
Now look at the buildings next to the burger joint.
The traditional historic development pattern has always been for the city to provide a basic grid of public infrastructure and then let individual land owners decide what the highest and best use should be for specific lots. There were some basic parameters for health and safety, but for the most part people built what made sense to them at the time. And somehow the end result of all those odd choices and mismatched structures was an incredibly dynamic city that perpetually reinvented itself.