Compass: Anchorage wastes space and money on open parking lots


Community leaders should have, as their first goal, a better life for all, including our children, grandchildren and other future inhabitants. We must seek ways to reduce the cost of maintaining the quality of life in Anchorage, not because we don't want to pay taxes but because we want Anchorage to remain a viable, healthful and enjoyable community. One method is to identify hidden costs and ensure they are being covered by those who most directly benefit.

Uncovered surface parking appears to be a simple and inexpensive fulfillment of an undeniable need. Instead, it represents one of the biggest single costs of maintaining Anchorage. A property tax surcharge for those who own and operate areas of uncovered surface parking could reduce the average owner's property taxes and focus attention on a cost that could be reduced.

As a result, the area of the city devoted to parking lots might decline, reducing the cost of government and providing an increase in land available for affordable housing.

But we have to have parking! This is about making sure that you aren't saddled with the costs of someone else's amenity. If the parking lot property owners are willing to cover the true costs and are able to pass them along to you in the form of increased parking rates, at least our property taxes will go down. But recognizing, and having to bear, the real cost of parking might also increase the use of carpooling and mass transit.

What are the hidden costs of uncovered surface parking? To put it another way, how are we all subsidizing these costs? Vehicles performing snow removal, transport and storage increase air pollution and the consumption of fossil fuels. Snowplows and dump trucks contribute to the degradation of our roads. Snow piles and snow storage sites create unacceptable concentrations of polluted water in the spring. Parking lots expand the size of our city and thereby extend the length of roads, pipes and wires, all of which are especially expensive in Anchorage because of our climate and seismicity. We all bear some of these costs.

In addition to the monetary impacts, surface parking lots degrade our quality of life. It's never fun to walk across a parking lot but we all know how awful, even dangerous, it can be when the snow, ice and darkness are at their worst. Speaking of darkness, parking lot lighting is a major contributor to our declining ability to see the northern lights.

Surface parking harms our efforts to create enjoyable pedestrian districts. Vibrant urban space requires a dense continuity of interesting retail frontage. In that context, a surface parking lot is like a smile's missing tooth or a gap in the recording of your favorite music.

The biggest concentration of uncovered surface parking is in Midtown, which, because of its access to services, jobs and mass transit, is the best place for affordable housing. The Mall at Sears, though large, is a typical example. The building occupies approximately 280,000 square feet. The parking lot consumes more than 600,000 additional square feet. Change the parking lots into housing developments.

But, wait, where are we going to park? In multilevel covered parking garages. If the real cost of the presently predominant strategy is exposed, the financial advantages of concentrated parking will become apparent. This becomes a win, win, win. The snow stays harmlessly on the roof and when it melts has not been concentrated into an unfortunately small area and is not nearly as dirty. We get to walk from our cars in a covered space and the walk is shorter (not necessarily a good thing for our health). More land remains available for homes, stores and offices.

Long ago, we acknowledged a shared discomfort with parking lots by demanding that they be screened with landscaping. Sorry to be a naysayer but that hasn't been very effective, has it? And it does not go to the heart of the issue. Conservatives and liberals alike can agree on the principle of paying one's own way. It's time to stop subsidizing uncovered surface parking.

Mike Mense is an Anchorage architect.