Bruce Nesmith is a Strong Towns member who blogs at Holy Mountain. This Black Friday Parking recap is republished from his blog with permission.
In 2013 the City of Cedar Rapids awarded $11.7 million in economic development tax breaks for the redevelopment of Westdale Mall, a 1970s creation that had fallen on hard times what with the Internet and an even grander mall down the road in Coralville. Two years later, the city provided guarantee for an $11.5 million bank loan. The original plan had a fair amount of greenwashing in it--walking trails, affordable housing for the elderly--that disappeared over time as costs mounted.
This year's Black Friday Parking walk reveals what taxpayers helped buy. While there is still ongoing construction, what remains on the site are stores but without the public features the mall used to offer: a place to walk (albeit one you had to drive to get to), a common area, public restrooms, and a warm place to wait for the bus. When the Super Wal-Mart is kicking your ass on walkability, you've got problems.
What also remains on site is parking. A lot of parking. J.C. Penney's was doing a brisk business Friday afternoon, but even so there was plenty of parking outside.
The parking lots of Westdale were at best 50 percent full. While it's true that the Black Friday phenomenon may be losing its commercial mojo, and that the highly popular University of Iowa Hawkeyes football team was playing archrival Nebraska this afternoon, it's fair to say that the new Westdale has vastly overbuilt parking. I don't know whether it's due to city requirements or the developer's choice, but either way there are civic costs to overloading the town with parking lots. Someone is on the hook for keeping them in repair, plowing them, etc. The adjoining streets are a dreadful mix of car traffic and unattractive shopping plazas full of chain stores and restaurants:
Down the street at the big box stores, the Black Friday parking story was much the same, albeit the parking lots were somewhat less frightening to walk across. Wal-Mart's parking lot was about 55 percent full.
Target's lot was I'd guess about 40 percent full.
Westdale Mall-That-Was sits on a triangle formed by three stroads that truly are traffic sewers: Edgewood Road, Wiley Boulevard and Williams Boulevard. That's a lot of accumulated bad planning, and a lot of surface parking, but now that's all water under the bridge. Those costs are sunk, that ship has sailed.
It can't have been worth $11.7 million to polish it, but I'm pretty sure it's not worth trying to impose urbanism on it either. It should at least serve as an object lesson for future development: Let whatever you do be human-scaled, let it be walkable, and let development decisions rely on market mechanisms like price signals instead of how much pull a given developer has with the city government.
(All photos by Bruce Nesmith)