Need Room for Affordable, Accessible Housing? There’s Plenty in Office Parking Lots.

Where do we put new housing for Virginia’s growing population? That’s an enduring public policy issue in Virginia, and it’s become even more pressing as the collapse of housing values in outlying juridictions have exposed the extent to which homeowners prefer shorter commutes and living close to the urban core. Some observers raise the argument that urban areas and inner “suburbs” are fully developed already — there’s no space for new housing. But that argument ignores the potential to re-develop land previously developed at extremely low densities.

Start with parking lots in office parks, suggests a recent study on moderate-income housing in Westchester County, N.Y., according to the New York Times.

Converting office parking lots to housing makes sense in a number of ways. They’re already zoned for high-density occupation. They’re already served by roads and infrastructure. And they create an option for some residents to live near where they work.

We’re seeing similar thinking here in Richmond. Markel Corp., a leading underwriter of specialty insurance products, applied a year or two ago to convert much of its parking lot in the Innsbrook corporate center into housing and retail. The lost parking spaces would be offset by structured parking. (I’m not sure what the status of the project is: It did face some opposition from neighboring residential NIMYs.)

Development that utilizes existing infrastructure is preferable to development that requires new roads and utilities. Likewise, development that integrates mixed uses and connects them with pedestrian-friendly streetscapes so that people can take fewer car trips is preferable to development that segregates land uses, imposes low densities and requires people to drive cars to reach every destination. As Virginia politicians find they can’t raise taxes fast enough to salvage a transportation system that becomes increasingly expensive to maintain with each increase in the price of a barrel of oil and ton of steel, the conclusion is inevitable: People will have to live in closer proximity to one another — hopefully in communities with a balance of jobs, housing, retail and amenities at both the neighborhood and the regional levels.

Ritual disclaimer: I’m not advocating that anyone be forced to live in the kinds of communities they don’t want to live in. I am not advocating social engineering. Indeed, I am advocating the opposite: Municipal governments need to dismantle barriers that prevent developers from building, and people from moving into, the kinds of communities for which the marketplace has documented tremendous latent demand. The alternative, as shown in the transportation-funding plan that Gov. Timothy M. Kaine was expected to roll out at noon today, is to raise taxes to perpetuate a transportation system and pattern of land use that is hopelessly out of date, expensive to maintain and unaffordable to expand.

(Hat tip: Gay Leahy.)

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  1. James Atticus Bowden Avatar
    James Atticus Bowden

    When you go west on Rte 7 at Tysons, as soon as you pass 123 overpass there are several shopping centers with huge parking lots on the left. Years ago, I wondered what it would take to cover them with a concrete superstructure to create a high ceiling, super well-lighted, safe, ground floor parking and put apartments, parks, outdoor athletic facilities above the base.

  2. Yes, because by taking away parking and putting everyone in high-rises will make Virginia just like that postcard example of livability: New York City.

    Might as well bring rent control to go with the extra crime, congestion, lack of parking and overcrowding.

    It’s false to talk about the rising cost of “transportation” networks as if you’re talking about the road budget without mentioning how much is siphoned off for empty buses and trains ($430 million/yr) and shuffled off to other departmental budgets. There’s a third alternative. It’s called fiscal discipline. Admittedly, it has gone out of style.

  3. Anonymous Avatar

    “Development that utilizes existing infrastructure is preferable …”

    You mean like the existing “structured parking?


    “What it would take to cover them…”

    First you have to go find someplace to mine for the cement and aggregate. It is going to be a lot bigger than the parking lot you cover.

    Then you have to slake the lime, in one of the few places that is allowed to occur, and ship it back to Virginia.

    You have to hire a bevy of engineers to design it. And lawyers and PR people to get it past review and inspection.

    You have to bring a few hundred thousand trucks into and out of Tyson’s while you are under construction.

    You have to light and patrol the parking area, and tear it all down and recycle it when you are done with it.

    Sounds like a plan.

    It might even make sense economically. just don;t think it is going to “save” anything.


  4. Anonymous Avatar

    “People will have to live in closer proximity to one another” ….. “I’m not advocating that anyone be forced to live in the kinds of communities they don’t want to live in.”

    Why will people have to do something they are not forced to do?


  5. Anonymous Avatar

    Jim, you’ve been inhaling. As everyone knows, the Tysons Land User Task Force is considering just these kinds of changes and even more. However, the idea that massive increases in density will reduce traffic congestion is simply crazy.

    The data from the Task Force show that the largest plan under consideration early this year would have resulted in 1,000,000 daily vehicle trips in and through Tysons Corner. I posted a link to that information earlier. That sounds like a giant leap backwards.

    Second, we still need public infrastructure to support more people. Where will they put it, and who will pay for it?

    Also, Ray is right. Why would people live in an overly expensive apartment/condo at Tysons Corner? People who want to live in D.C. or New York City tend to do so. Why would they want to live in an admittedly ugly place like Tysons Corner? Moreover, most people still want SFHs.

    We need more places, not more concrete canyons.


  6. Anonymous Avatar

    “People who want to live in D.C. or New York City tend to do so. “

    Like Dylan said, “The paradigms they are a – changing.”

    I reported previously ovehearing the conversation at the next table. Two young men were discussing the relationship between how much it costs to live where they wanted, and how much it costs to drive to work.

    It turned out, they lived in the District and commuted to Dulles, but they were considering moving to Falls Church or some such place.


  7. Anonymous Avatar

    I mis-read TMT’s post.

    At first, I thought it said:

    Jim, you’ve been inhaling, As everyone knows.


  8. Jim Bacon Avatar
    Jim Bacon

    TMT, I’m not saying that converting office parking to residential is a universal solution for every community. But if you don’t mind, please allow us in parts of Virginia that are not Tysons Corner consider the benefits of the idea.

    As for Tysons Corner itself…. Tysons may not be a good place to increase the density of *office* development, but *residential* development is a different story entirely. Residential development puts people in Tysons Corner in proximity to where they work and shop. That is a good thing. Peopel who live and work in Tysons aren’t jamming the roads leading into Tysons.

  9. Anonymous Avatar

    “People who live and work in Tysons aren’t jamming the roads leading into Tysons.”

    So alleviating commuting relieves 20% of the problem.

    More people in one place still means more cars per square mile. I fyou can’t handle the traffic, you can’t handle the traffic.

    I have a hard time imagining it is a million more trips, as TMT reports, but even if it is only 100,000……


  10. Anonymous Avatar

    Is that a photo of some kids spinning doughnuts in the parking lot?

    Gas prices aren’t high enough and some people don’t have enough to do.


  11. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    this not only provides additional space for commerce/habitation but as important – it shields the parking from stormwater runoff.

    You’d still get runoff from the roof but runoff from a roof is pristine compared to that from a typical parking lot.

    Eventually, we may have to:

    1. – user LID and/or porous pavement or both

    2. – cover parking lots (ideally with solar panels)

    3. – convert parking lots to buildings with parking on the lower levels

    I still invite anyone who reads here to take a few minutes on your next visit to a recent vintage commercial development with a large parking lot to cruise around behind it to look at the storm pond – which is:

    1 – usually very large
    2 – far from inviting

    In areas already densely developed, putting in new development (or redevelopment) with substantial parking is going to become very, very expensive if the storm pond has to installed as it will be eating up very valuable land….

    the storm pond issue may well encourage less exposed parking…

  12. Anonymous Avatar

    You still have to have a storm pond to handle runoff from the roof.

    Porous pavement just means some of the crud goes into the ground instead of into the streams.

    Covering the parking lot doesn’t solve the problem either.

    Cars don’t have to leak like a sieve. All we need to do is add another item to the inspection list, and get cars to clean up their leak issues just as they did with their exhaust issues. Don;t blame parking lots for auto leaks, besides, they leak a lot of other places, too. Go fix the primary problem if car crud is what worries you.

    That parking lot is already serving a building. Putting another building there means you need more parking.

    And you need more road capacity to get to the building, which we don’t have.

    If you want to put up a new buiding, put it where people live. Or, you can put it where you would like them to live, but you need to make it a lot less expensive than anything that is there now. You will need to incentivise or subsidise people to get them to do what you want.


  13. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    filtering is how “crud” is given time to bio-degrade before it gets into the streams.

    The reason that poop (and other stuff) is a problem on an impervious surface and not in the woods is that in the woods it has time to decompose and filter and we know that this “works” because most places where there are critters and woods – the groundwater is pure enough to drink without treatment.

    millions of people get their drinking water from wells that are 30 feet down from all manner of stuff that is dropped on the surface – but the surface is the first filter layer… of several

    and that’s the difference…
    building something above an impervious surface keeps the rain from flushing what has fallen on that surface… essentially sequesters the contaminates…

    Rooftop runoff can be stored and used for irrigation and/or stored in underground tanks and metered out into the groundwater.

    That’s an option that cannot be done when the water is contaminated.

    building on top of parking lots WILL generate more net traffic but here’s the thing.

    Parking spaces where people live are vacant during the day and filled at night.

    Shopping centers work on an opposite schedule.

    People who live there will do at least some of their shopping there – saving auto trips and some folks who live there may be able to work nearby …. and the increased density making public transport more viable.

  14. Anonymous Avatar

    “millions of people get their drinking water from wells that are 30 feet down from all manner of stuff that is dropped on the surface – but the surface is the first filter layer… of several”

    And more and more we find that people are getting sick because of it. We find more and more contamination as we get better at measuring it.

    Building roofs over parking lots to keep car crud from getting into the water strikes me as a stupid and expensive proposal, and the wrong answer. There are a lot cheaper ways of reducing car crud in the water.

    But then, if we build all those roofs, maybe they can double as homeless shelters.


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