Parking and Retail Development

November 23, 2013
By: Reurbanist
Is this really a sustainable retail development? While developers and retailers alike may think customers require excessive amounts of parking, changes in demographics and consumer preferences may prove otherwise. Image from the ICSC International Outlet Journal, Summer 2009, Volume 5, Number 3 edition.

While current trends show that automobile use is likely on the decline worldwide [1, 2, 3], the reality remains that parking lots like the one pictured above will be required in the short term to keep retail centres in car dependent neighborhoods viable. Although surface parking is contrary to many urbanist ideals, there are creative ways for developers and municipal urban planners to handle this necessary evil.

Current Trends for Developers

1. Build less parking - it might not be necessary

Based on the results of a study on the role parking plays in the success of urban shopping centres in Greater London, Eric Jaffe of the Atlantic Cities concluded four reasons why retailers don’t need parking to thrive:

  1. Free, plentiful parking often hurts more than it helps

  2. Retailers overestimate how many customers arrive by car

  3. Retailers also overestimate how much car customers spend

  4. A mix of retailers is more important than parking supply; convenient parking was actually rated the least important reason why shoppers chose the retail destination they did

Each retail market is unique and the surrounding density, land uses, and access will impact the quantity of parking required. Retail projects located in areas with high walkscores and decent public transit, like Greater London, may require less parking than what is required by the local municipality’s minimum parking ratio. On the other hand, higher parking ratios may need to be maintained for projects that are located in areas with low walk scores and poor transit accessibility.

2. Accommodate cyclists, pedestrians, and transit users by integrating the proposed retail project with its nearby surroundings

Customers arriving by car spend more retail dollars per visit, but customers who arrive by transit, cycling, or walking actually spend more retail dollars per week, indicating that they are just as important to retailers as car owners [4, 5, 6].

Research conducted by Transport for London illustrates transit users, cyclists, and pedestrians spend more per week on retail than car customers because they visit retail destinations and town centres more often.

America’s newest and largest LEED Gold certified shopping center, Destiny USA, located in Syracuse, NY (Walkscore: 63), is a perfect example of how a retail developer with a semi-suburban site ensured that cyclists, pedestrians, and transit users were incorporated into its designs and connected with adjacent assets.

  • The centre constructed over 200 bicycle racks for public use and integrated employee shower and locker facilities

Photos of Destiny U.S.A.’s cyclist infrastructure provided by Ms. Sara Wallace, Social, Digital Marketing & PR director at Destiny U.S.A.

  • A pedestrian bridge was constructed to connect the centre to nearby walking, cyclist trails, and greenways

Pyramid Management Group realized the importance of Syracuse's Creekwalk, an existing pedestrian/cyclist greenway, in bringing customers who may walk or cycle to Destiny USA. To capitalize on this asset, they constructed a universally designed 300 foot pedestrian bridge that extends from the 2nd floor of the center to the trail’s entrance point on the Creekwalk Corridor.

3. Replace surface parking with underground parking and add additional land uses

Underground parking is expensive and can sometimes negate the benefits of constructing mixed-uses such as residential and office components (as in the case of Ivanhoe Cambridge’s project in Surrey, Canada). While this might be true for some cases, there has been a growing body of evidence [7, 8, 9] that suggests mixing uses generates synergy since each different use benefits from the other through the use of shared parking.

Mixing uses can effectively decrease the number of required parking spaces that a future development will require. Source: Centennial, Colorado, Land Development Code § 12-5-206

The example above illustrates how different uses have varying parking requirements throughout the day and how each use has their own peak time in which demand is extremely high. For example, office parking requirements during weekday evenings are only 10% of peak, while retail is 90%. Combining these two land uses and sharing parking allows less overall space to be built.

Will Macht, a blogger at the Urban Land Institute argues that multiblock underground shared parking can be one of the most important tools between developers and planners in order to create the highest density with the most optimal mixture of uses. According to Macht, this technique has the potential to “stimulate greater densities using lower parking ratios, by achieving more effective ones.” He points to the Brewery Blocks in downtown Portland (Walkscore: 98) to illustrate the opportunities of underground multiblock shared parking:

 “underground shared parking garage stimulated the resurgence of retail uses is Portland’s Pearl District...shoppers to those venues know even if they cannot find a place outside their favorite location, they can certainly find a parking space at the Brewery Blocks.”

4. Hide parking in order to enhance the pedestrian experience

As mentioned above, underground parking is expensive and not feasible for all projects given their budget or location. In these cases, hiding parking behind active uses can be a healthy alternative to creating a vibrant, pedestrian-centric development.

Lansdowne Town Center in Virginia (Walkscore: 58) is a prime example of a suburban development that hides surface parking in order to create a pedestrian-centric retail experience. The lease plan pictured below shows major surface parking lots placed behind retail uses instead of placing parking between the street and active retail storefronts. Since parking is hidden behind active retail uses emphasis can be placed on placemaking elements that make a development a pleasant place to shop in by integrating resting places, food and beverage tenants that feature al fresco dining, and other significant public spaces.

Another method of separating parking areas from active pedestrian areas can be seen in Highgate Village in Burnaby (Walkscore: 78) where parking was hidden by  wrapping retail uses around parking. While this method is more complex, it allows for denser development as illustrated below.

Highgate Village, Burnaby


Current Trends for Urban Planners

1. Require underground parking, penalize parking in general, or let the market decide

Even though parking can be seen as counter-intuitive to placemaking by planners, there are a number of progressive actions that can be taken to shift conversations with developers regarding parking in their projects:

  • Calgary recently enacted a landmark new-urbanist planning law that requires developers to place 80% of all parking underground. While this may seem like a progressive law by the government, retail developers may have trouble making their projects financially viable if their projects are located in suburban locations with poor transit access. For underground parking to become viable, retail lease rates will need to escalate from their current levels.

  • Pittsburgh enacts a 40% tax on parking throughout the city. Higher taxes on parking typically result in higher rates, which according to a recent study lead to higher parking space turnover rates. While this might sound counterproductive at first, higher parking space turnovers ultimately result in higher retail sales as more customers are able to utilize the free spaces.

  • The City of Los Angeles approved a master plan for the redevelopment of a major downtown district that did not include parking requirements. According to City Planner Claire Bowin, not including parking requirements in the plan allows the market to decide how much parking is required.

2. Hide parking through more pedestrian-centric designs

Kaid Benfield from the NRDC compares neighborhoods that allow parking in the front versus those those that require parking to be placed behind buildings. His findings are clear - for walkability and neighborhood vibrancy, put buildings in front and parking in back.

While Benfield compares many examples, Carmel, Indiana, a suburb of Indianapolis is one of the most innovative examples of how a traditional, bedroom suburb that was once lined with surface parking lots and strip malls transformed into a walkable, pedestrian-centric environment that hides parking either behind buildings or underground.


Parking will inevitably remain a necessity for future retail developments with poor accessibility in the short term. However, it will be important for developers and urban planners to recognize the declining importance that automobiles will play in the lives of future consumers and think about designing projects with less of an emphasis on automobiles and more for people [10, 11].



According to The World Bank, the number of motor vehicles in OECD nations has been seeing slowing growth and even declining since 2007. It will be important for retail developers to recognize this declining trend and plan for the future.


About Reurbanist
Reurbanist™ believes retail offers cities the best opportunity to recreate their urban fabric.

Developers, investors and governments around the world are recognizing how retail offers enormous opportunities. Retail is the glue which holds communities, neighbourhoods and mixed use developments together.
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