The City of Rochester, New York is seeking developers to transform a portion of a former subway tunnel into more parking downtown. While typically, the very thought of converting mass transit infrastructure into parking would send shivers down the spines of even moderate urbanists, this attempt to expand parking capacity isn’t so cut-and-dry. In fact, this project may be a surprisingly beneficial way to catalyze more redevelopment in the city’s recovering downtown.

Before I get into the benefits of a tunnel-to-parking retrofit, it must be made clear that Rochester has absolutely no shortage of parking. In fact, perhaps the only parking problem in Rochester is that there is far too much of it. Throughout the latter half of the 20th century, as in much of the rest of the country, development proceeded according to the principle that traffic flow and parking availability were paramount to the city’s success. Dense clusters of shops and apartments were razed in favor of surface lots, parking decks, and highways such as the now defunct Inner Loop. Like so many other American cities, Rochester was effectively disemboweled during the relentless transition to an auto-dependent culture.

So why in the world would adding yet another parking deck now be a good thing? On a practical note, there is tremendous financial and legal incentive for the city to offload the subway tunnel. Despite its nostalgic allure, Rochester’s subway is not coming back. The subway hasn’t served any passengers since 1956, and the city has since lost a third of its population. And even with a residential comeback in recent years, downtown’s population and employment density would have to increase exponentially to justify the revival of a mass transit option with the sheer capacity of a subway or even light rail network.

Furthermore, while the old subway bed has become a magnet for adventurous urban explorers, it also serves as a massive liability for the city. The ongoing maintenance to ensure the tunnel’s structural integrity costs taxpayers $1.2 million per year, and the potential for unauthorized explorers of the space to get injured is almost certainly a headache for the city’s legal team. While more creative uses for the subway, such as a dramatic pedestrian space, have been floated for years, such plans focus mostly on the portion of the subway spanning the Broad Street Bridge rather than the area west of the Genesee River, and none have come to fruition.

Practical concerns aside, surely more parking would further destroy the urban character of downtown? Maybe not. Consider the state of downtown west of the Genesee River:

 Aerial view of downtown Rochester from Google Earth.

Aerial view of downtown Rochester from Google Earth.

Surface parking has become one of the downtown's most predominant land uses. And as redevelopment continues in the Cascade District and along Plymouth Avenue, the demand for new parking will almost certainly grow.

However, the form that parking takes is still up in the air. Rochester doesn’t usually see the types of massive residential developments that warrant their own parking decks. A stagnant economy and little regional population growth mean that Rochester developers are working with much thinner profit margins than developers in the red hot coastal markets. It follows that much of the recent development in the downtown area has involved the repurposing of underutilized buildings and reliance on the existing parking supply. Without the rents needed to justify new structured parking, infill development will struggle to remain viable as the value of parking increases.

This is where the city finds itself in a unique situation. The immense task of engineering and funding an underground structure capable of car storage is largely complete. The tunnel has even been maintained to some degree of structural integrity. With the barrier to entry substantially lowered, Rochester is in a prime position to provide parking in a way that allows infill development to heal the gaping wounds in the urban fabric.

Typically, parking requirements and market pressure obligate developers to dedicate large amounts of land and resources to parking. These hard costs increase uncertainty and push up the minimum rent required for feasibility. In soft markets like Rochester, this could be a death knell for the kinds of incremental infill projects key to the city’s ongoing recovery. But now that the city has offered a structurally-sound 100-foot wide tunnel, the parking equation begins to look much different. With the prospect of an underground parking facility, the expanses of asphalt scarring entire blocks of downtown begin looking a lot less valuable as car storage. As the value of surface parking decreases, so does the barrier of entry for small developers looking to invest in downtown.

In this case, the city is offering a unique opportunity where the infrastructure is largely already in place for a new parking facility that could serve a significant portion of downtown. From a small developer’s perspective, contracting with an off-site parking operator may be a far more valuable proposition than sacrificing valuable leasable space on her parcel. Thankfully, the city of Rochester has taken the crucial step of eliminating downtown parking requirements which would allow such incremental development to flourish.

Neighborhoods thrive when development can proceed without being forced to provide on-site parking. When designed properly, underground parking is far less disruptive to the urban fabric than a traditional parking deck or surface lot.

Surface lots and parking decks are tremendously damaging to the ability of an urban space to function in two ways. For one, they are simply unsightly. Charming places are quickly ruined by faceless concrete structures and expanses of asphalt.

Second, and more importantly, parking decks and surface lots destroy the continuous street-level activation which is so critical to the success of the urban places. Urban neighborhoods thrive when the streets contain an unbroken sequence of destinations, including storefronts, front porches, building entrances, and public spaces. The most successful and desirable places (think Greenwich Village, Princeton, or even Park Avenue in Rochester itself) thrive on this recipe of dense, human-scaled development. Underground parking with discrete access allows for such places to develop and function in a way that surface lots and parking decks often inhibit.

The addition of underground parking could intensify the pressure for the development of the surrounding surface lots scarring the urban fabric. This process has already begun, with the development of townhouses and a mixed-use building along Plymouth Avenue. The city has already taken the essential steps of eliminating all parking requirements in the downtown and permitting virtually all uses by-right in the downtown zoning districts. With parking available underground, local developers would have even more incentive to continue the trend of infill development without the worry or cost of parking availability. And the quality of the urban fabric could heal in the process.

All opinions presented in this article are those of the author alone.

Top photo credit: Mike Wilson via Unsplash.



About the Author

Austin Maitland is a professional planner living in New Jersey. He has been a frequent guest contributor to Strong Towns; you can read his other articles here. Today, he shares a guest post about a recent development in his hometown of Rochester, NY.