IN the densely packed heart of Charleston, S.C., a 344-year-old city on the Atlantic Ocean, surface parking lots are hidden behind buildings to maintain the historic look of one of North America’s oldest urban centres.
One hundred kilometres down the coast, amid the sprawling gated communities of Hilton Head Island, surface parking lots at big-box stores are hidden behind walls of vegetation to maintain the leafy feel of the 31-yearold coastal community.
These two very different South Carolina cities have found a way to combat the tyranny of the surface parking lot, a blight upon almost every urban centre in North America. Given that the U.S. South isn’t exactly famous for progressive planning, it’s humbling for a Canadian to visit these cities and grow envious of the rules in place to reduce the negative impact of surface lots.
For decades, politicians and planners in Winnipeg have acknowledged our downtown simply has too many surface lots, the proverbial "buildings gone missing like teeth" in the Weakerthans’ Left And Leaving.
Up until fairly recently, almost anyone who owned a commercially unviable building was allowed to knock it down and open up a surface parking lot in its place. While renovating an old building is extremely expensive and may offer little in the way of a financial return, operating a surface lot is comparatively cheap and profitable. So over the decades of downtown Winnipeg’s postwar decline, building after building was torn down to create the patchwork of windswept emptiness we have today.
The negative impacts are wellknown. For starters, surface parking lots are ugly. They also contribute to a sense of emptiness, not to mention a lack of safety, that dissuades pedestrian activity. Surface lots also don’t contribute as much tax revenue to city coffers as actual buildings with actual tenants who pay rent and contribute to the economy.
Officially, you can’t tear down a building to create a new surface parking lot in downtown Winnipeg anymore. But exceptions continue to be made and structures keep coming down.
On the other hand, efforts to get rid of downtown surface lots by building on top of them have so far been led by the public sector, either directly or through subsidies or joint ventures.
The RBC Convention Centre is expanding on to a large lot south of York Avenue. Municipal grants are available for building parkades and city-provincial tax incentives can help build new apartment and condo buildings.
The private sector has yet to rush in to develop surface lots because there is no incentive for developers to do so. In theory, this will change once Mayor Sam Katz unveils a plan to offer property-tax holidays to anyone who builds up on a surface parking lot in the inner city.
The mayor made this promise in 2010, during the waning days of the last election campaign. But tax holidays may not be enough: Carrots are nice, but they only work for developers — that is, people actually trying to accomplish something.
Plenty of downtown Winnipeg’s surface lots are not owned by developers, but by speculators, or people who have no intention of doing anything with their properties in the foreseeable future.
Rising downtown property values have led some speculators to sell their land. But the worst inertia can only be combatted with a stick as well as a carrot: a penalty for failing to develop a surface parking lot.
The city has the ability to tax empty lots as if they had buildings upon them. Property owners could be given a year or two of notice that they are expected to develop their land. After that, their municipal tax assessments would begin to graduate toward a level where the properties are taxed at their highest and best use — as if they were commercial highrises.
Coupled with tax incentives to develop, these penalties would be a very powerful tool. The city would have to be careful about how the weapon is wielded to ensure property values do not plummet.
But if the mechanism works, similar penalties could be applied to owners of vacant downtown heritage buildings who fail to renovate their properties. Owners who don’t like the idea of being forced to develop can always choose to sell their land.
It would take a tough mayor and council to bring in the stick as well as the carrot. But since the goal here is to encourage development, only the most recalcitrant speculators would suffer.
These folks would get very little sympathy. After all, nobody likes a surface parking lot — unless they own one.