Opinion: Downtown Parking Lots Are Empty, It’s Time to Get Rid of Them

As we approach the third anniversary of the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown, one thing has become impossible to ignore. Office workers are not 100% coming back.

This issue has ramifications across every major city in America and its suburbs too. Offices aren’t just located in Central Business Districts, and you can find plenty of less-than-half-full office campus parking lots all around the outerbelt.

But half empty parking lots are a suburban norm in America (a quick trip to any Walmart will confirm that you have your pick of over 50% of the parking spaces at any given moment), but the same cannot be said of our Downtowns.

Pre-pandemic, parking lots in Downtown Columbus were fairly full during the 9-to-5 work week and prices were at a premium for both daily rates and monthly passes. Those same lots were a lot less full during nights and weekends, but companies were reluctant to change that dynamic to ensure their work commuters had enough spaces ready for them to easily store their vehicle during the day.

Today, your average workday looks a lot like a pre-pandemic Saturday in many of the surface parking lots in Downtown Columbus. Dedicated office parking owned by larger companies like State Auto or Encova are less than half full most work days. These primarily white-collar office jobs are the easiest to shift to remote work, and even if those workers have dedicated parking spots they don’t have to pay for, they’d still rather stay home.

Private parking at Encova Insurance — Photo taken on a Tuesday at 9:20am.

And students at colleges like Columbus State and Franklin University have also shifted to taking more online classes, requiring fewer spaces to park all day every day for college enrollment Downtown.

Every time we’ve inquired, data has been reported as incomplete as to the number of Downtown workers who have returned to the office. But one common refrain you’ll hear from experts on the topic is that many workers have shifted to a “hybrid” model, which means they come into the office for just one or two days per week (and sometimes less), usually for important meetings and not much else.

That certainly makes it sound like some parking is still needed — just not to the same degree as it was before. If an office worker comes in one day per week instead of five, that represents an 80% decline in their individual parking needs. Two days a week represents a 60% decline. Multiply this across tens of thousands of office jobs and the issue compounds pretty quickly.

But Why Are Empty Parking Lots a Big Deal?

Ok, so an empty parking spot isn’t the biggest issue in the world right now. But it certainly represents a lost opportunity for better use.

The Central Ohio region is expected to grow from a population of 2 million in 2016 to 3 million by 2050. Local leaders are working on plans to accommodate this growth with reformed zoning for denser housing and high-density transit corridors to better move people throughout the region.

Repurposing empty parking lots has long been a strategy in urban neighborhoods, and Downtown Columbus has seen its fair share of infill development. But while new development has been occuring at a rapid pace in our Downtown for the past 20 years, it’s still not enough. According to the latest data from Capital Crossing Special Improvement District, apartment occupancy remains above 91% Downtown, meaning that demand is still high for more places to live.

Experts around the nation are claiming that a wide variety of new housing types are needed to accomodate growing metros. That means a mix of more single-family homes, more low-income housing, more “Missing Middle” housing and more high rise apartment and condo buildings.

If we don’t reclaim this underutilized land Downtown for dense housing, then we’re going to continue to see more sprawl, more traffic congestion, less walkability and more pollution. The development of empty surface parking lots into functional high-density buildings also means an increase in tax revenue for the city and a better fiscal balance for everyone else. When parking lots aren’t paying enough in taxes, it’s up to everyone else to subsidize them.

Not Enough Parking Where We Need It, Too Much Where We Don’t Need It

Anyone reading this opinion piece who has ventured to the Short North on a busy summer night has certainly encountered full parking lots and garages. The same goes for parking in the Arena District during a concert or hockey game, or the visitor searching for on-street parking in German Village or Italian Village.

Hot and cold spots for parking demands will continue to be something to plan around. But two observations I’ve made seem to hold fairly true when it comes to the emptiest of lots in Downtown Columbus proper:

  • The further you are from High Street, the emptier the lot gets.
  • The more dedicated the lot’s function, the emptier it gets.

Some privately owned parking lots are for one type of user only, be it an enrolled college student at Columbus State or an office worker at the Ohio Chamber of Commerce. The tighter the restrictions and the further away from multiple destinations, the less the lot is being utilized for different needs.

Student parking lots at Columbus State Community College, mostly empty — Photo taken on a Thursday at 9:10 a.m.

Keep in mind that restaurant diners and entertainment patrons will often forgo surface parking lots to utilize on-street parking meters as well. And many Downtown residents have private dedicated structured or underground parking spaces, so they have little need for surface lot use. When speaking with Downtown businesses this year, many have seen customer levels return to their pre-pandmic levels, and much of that customer base has come through an increase in residents and visitors, and not the displaced Downtown office workers who used the majority of the surface lot spaces.

With all of that being said, it sounds like the perfect time to make some changes. But how exactly do we go about doing that?

The Carrot Approach VS The Stick Approach

In the early 2000s, a push for new housing in Downtown Columbus was spearheaded by former Mayor Michael Coleman’s administration, and incentives were introduced to kickstart that process. Developers were granted tax breaks if they were willing to build Downtown instead of the far flung suburbs, and taxpayer dollars were invested into public parking garages to offset the loss of surface parking lots that were to be filled in with new housing.

Despite their sometimes controversial nature, the tax abatements worked, and many have expired. A 15 year abatement granted in 2004 has expired. The same goes for a 10 year abatement granted in 2010. As a result of this incentivized approach, Downtown’s residential population has tripled from 3,400 in the year 2000 to 11,200 in 2022.

But while select surface parking lots have disappeared, many acres of them still remain. The owners of surface parking lots have little incentive to sell or develop, as taxes on undeveloped land are very low, and there’s money to be made even with reduced parking demand.

Only a handful of cars despite the low monthly rates — Photo taken on a Thursday at 3:57 p.m.

Some cities have experimented with new taxes on surface parking lots in Downtown areas to encourage redevelopment, but one of the constant counterpoints is that the parking lot owners would simply pass new tax burdens onto their customers through increased parking prices to keep their business model viable.

That argument loses a lot of steam when there are no customers right now to pass the cost along to. That provides a perfect opportunity to impliment a new fee structure in 2023. New surface parking lot fees could even directly be allocated to improving mass transit programs, providing better bus service for new residents to help offset a future need for more surface lot parking spaces.

A Few Miscellaneous Final Thoughts

No, I don’t think surface parking lot owners are evil monsters. We often go searching for hidden meanings when a problem is identified, but most of the time a problem only persists because of a lack of inertia to improve the situation. If things have always been set up a certain way, then most people aren’t looking to make changes and will instead stay the course.

That’s why a very intentional initiative must be spearheaded to lead the charge and make some big changes for the betterment of our Downtown and for all of Central Ohio. Conversations with every surface parking lot owner could begin today to find out which ones are most interested in selling their land, redeveloping their lots, or improving the environment for the future.

As a community, we need the housing. We don’t need the parking. Let’s make the change.

A very empty public parking lot — photo taken on a Thursday at 3:55 p.m.
A surface parking lot at Capital Square, less than half full on a Tuesday morning at 9:40 a.m.

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