Will Building More Parking Finally Enhance the National Mall?

[Originally published by the Urban Times]

Washington, DC–The cherry blossoms in Washington, DC, may have been delayed by a cold early spring, but after finally blooming, there wasn’t any dip in the number of people wishing to see them. Instead visitors were out in droves that first weekend in April, meandering around a Tidal Basin lined with greens and whites and pinks, against the backdrop of the nation’s finest monuments. But unfortunately for these visitors, the trip back wasn’t as scenic, since roads between the Basin and downtown were slammed with traffic cops, bumper-to-bumper cars, and bicyclists seemingly on a suicide mission. This extended to the National Mall, validating a recent Washington Post editorial about the need to alleviate the area’s congestion.

The editorial was addressed to “anyone who has ever circled the Mall, looking for a place to park,” or who has avoided this altogether since it “would be impossible.” It was also addressed to those who have soured to the Mall’s gasoline fumes, obstructive tour buses, and lack of restrooms. For these and other problems, the Post had a “sensible idea”: build an underground parking structure.

This echoed a March report by the non-profit National Coalition to Save Our Mall (NCSM), which envisioned this multi-level structure not only for buses and cars, but restrooms, food shops, bike parking, and tourist info. Inspired by a 1966 plan, the structure would also house a reservoir to mitigate the Mall’s substantial flood risks, and cisterns to irrigate its notoriously clumpy lawn. Extending directly below this lawn for several blocks, it would become a one-stop shop for visitors who are now isolated from basic commercial services when traveling between museums and monuments. The structure’s 1,000 parking spaces would also free up the streets aboveground for more desirable uses.

It would do this by helping with what is now a chaotic traffic situation. Today around the Mall and surrounding areas, private automobiles are slowed by numerous crossing pedestrians, who themselves are endangered by weaving bicyclists, pedicabs, taxis and tour buses. Many of these automobiles, according to NCSM’s report, are just looking for parking, which is only available on-street for hours at a time, if at all. But if drivers could park all day in a centralized structure, they would linger less on the roads, increasing capacity for bike lanes, safer walkways, a bus circulator, and perhaps even a streetcar along Constitution Avenue. All this would help transform the Mall into a desirable public space, rather than, as Kaid Benfield put it, the bottlenecked and indistinct “high school football field” it is now.

While nothing like this structure exists in Washington, underground ones have been built elsewhere in America to address similar needs. Garages exist below both Union Square in San Francisco and Pershing Square in Los Angeles, to accommodate heavy downtown parking demands. Houston’s underground features a shopping mall and walkways between office towers. In the 1850s, Chicago actually elevated its entire downtown to prevent flooding, and to create a network for service cars. The Second City may expand on this concept in the future by building a transit hub west of downtown that would connect pedestrians to the Loop via underground tunnels.

Because the structure in Washington might have similar functions, like connecting to nearby Metro stations, it would cost well over $400 million, with no clear funding in sight. But the Post editorial suggested it could pay for itself over the decades by charging parking fees, and this payoff could perhaps occur sooner if run by private contractors.

Nonetheless, some criticisms have emerged. David Alpert, of the blog Greater Greater Washington, questioned whether the structure would be a misuse of resources, especially from a government unwilling “to even fund keeping the grass alive.” Both he and Aaron Wiener of the Washington City Paper also claimed it would just attract more automobiles to an already-congested area.

But the alternative, which is to keep parking undersupplied, is impractical in places with lots of out-of-town visitors, like Washington. Many of these visitors, either from necessity or unfamiliarity with Metro, will drive to the Mall regardless—something rather evident today. Washington can either anticipate this by channeling them into a central structure—and then charging them—or having them continue to roam for free parking. According to UCLA’s Donald Shoup, the latter approach will just increase pollution and add to traffic, while the former, even if attracting more cars, will reduce congestion on the streets. And this could have the effect, ironically, of turning those streets, and the broader Mall area, into a destination.