Black Friday is traditionally the biggest shopping day of the year, which means it’s also the day when parking lots are put to the test. In fact, during the latter half of the 20th Century, many city land use codes, including Fort Collins’, set their minimum requirements based on expectations for this one day. So it can be quite instructive to visit our local parking lots on Black Friday to get a sense of whether our car parking is adequate or overbuilt.

When too much space is given over to parking, that’s land that’s not being used to support our community economically, socially, or environmentally. In fact, excessive parking lots can actually be detrimental to a city. According to Stephanie Meeks in her book The Past and Future City, “urban residents are less likely to know anyone in their community if the shops around them have parking lots. Conversely, fewer asphalt dead zones means more foot traffic and more business.” There’s a point at which too much parking does more harm than good.

So last week I decided to head out and get a sense of just which of our local retailers had maxed out their parking space on Black Friday and which hadn’t. I was especially curious to know if newer developments (under updated City Land Use Code regulations) would end up being closer to the mark while older developments would reveal their 20th Century predilections towards excessive parking. I focused on retail developments and avoided office spaces, since shopping is what Black Friday is all about.

Old Town

There are a lot of great little shops downtown so I decided to start at the Civic Center parking structure and work my way south. I began my tour at 10:30, after most retail shops had opened but before the lunch crowd would start arriving. What I found is that clearly people were not thronging downtown to begin their holiday shopping. The parking structure was nearly empty. And as I left, I noticed available parking along College Avenue as well.

Midtown Commons

Ever since ARC moved from the mall to its current location in Midtown Commons, it seems like it’s just been going gangbusters. There’s often a line at the checkout and on Saturdays, their biggest sale days, it’s nearly impossible to get into a dressing room without a long wait. So between all of the crafty shoppers at Joann’s and the thrifty shoppers at ARC, I really expected the Midtown Commons parking lot to be pretty maxed out.

It wasn’t.

Now I’m wondering if ARC’s biggest shopping period isn’t the day after Thanksgiving so much as the week or two before school starts in the fall. It seemed a bit fuller back in August when I visited, but then again, it wasn’t maxed out at that point either. So either way, this parking lot has some wasted space.

The Foothills Mall

It’s a bit tough to judge the mall at this point because it’s not entirely finished, nor is it completely rented out with retail tenants. So I tried to focus on the parts of the mall with open shops, restaurants, or the theater, and I avoided shooting photographs of vacant areas where there was a retail gap. Even so, I still managed to capture lots and lots of available parking space.

The parking structure was nearly empty and the space behind the movie theater was pretty vacant. The rest of the mall (excluding the areas around missing retail) seemed to hover between 30% and 70% full. Only Macy’s seemed to get close to filling their end of the lot.

The new and improved Foothills Mall was built with more current parking requirements, and I believe it is in the transit oriented development overlay. But the merchant space is not at full capacity yet, including one anchor store that is completely empty. So I wouldn’t expect the parking lots around the mall to be full, but I would expect them to be at least half full if the mall has been rented out to half capacity. Based on the sheer number of empty spots both on the ground and in the free parking structure, it looks like the mall might have too many parking spaces. Then again, maybe residents in the new apartments that are being built on the east side will end up using the extra space. That remains to be seen. #blackfridayparking #blackfridayparkingnoco #fortcollins

A photo posted by Meg Dunn (@urbanfortcollins) on

Conn’s and Penney’s

A little further south I stopped in at Conn’s (nearly empty) and JC Penney (nearly full). This is a great example of requiring each business to have its own parking when overlapped parking would provide a much better use of the land.

The City Land Use Code now has a provision that blocks this kind of development, requiring instead that there be at least four businesses sharing a parking lot — which will hopefully enable an overlap in use of the parking spaces.

3.5.4 (C)

Land Use. All large retail establishments shall be located in a group of more than four (4) retail establishments located in a complex which is planned, developed, owned or managed as a single unit with off-street parking provided on the property. Indoor recreation facilities are exempt from this requirement.

REI, Barnes & Noble, Old Navy, Bed Bath & Beyond, and Big Lots

I think it’s interesting that the strip mall that currently houses Whole Foods, Office Max, Petco, etc. used to be called Century Mall, then University Mall. The area where ARC and Joann’s is now used to be Thunderbird Plaza and now is Midtown Commons. Foothills Fashion Mall is now just the Foothills Mall. And right next to it is the The Square is where the Sleep Store, Trader Joe’s, etc. are. The names of some of these places have changed, but they all have names. The further south you go, however, it seems the names start to disappear. Instead of heading to a specific shopping center, instead you’re heading to a specific big box store, such as Old Navy or Target. This seems to reflect a change in our attitude towards shopping. We’re no longer as interested in going to an area with a lot of small (possibly even locally owned) shops. Instead, we’ve been increasingly putting our focus on specific, individual big box stores.

When Costco came in, there was not only no talk about smaller stores ringing the site, but there wasn’t even a sense that there could or should be an expectation of more than just one big store in that location. Ditto for the Walmart just across the street. So while we still do make shopping zones, such as Front Range Village, we’re also quite comfortable with the idea that a big store can move in all by itself as well. This mindset affects how we use the land around us and it contributes to the type of development that we see at Conn’s and Penneys, and also what we see at Big Lots, REI, and Bed Bath & Beyond.

Target on Troutman

The posterchild for poor land use is the Target on Troutman. I have never, in the 15 years I’ve lived in Fort Collins, seen the parking lot even half full. It might possibly hit one third full, but that’s probably only when people use the northwest corner of the lot as a park ‘n ride for the MAX line and it’s back-to-school season. Black Friday certainly didn’t put a dent in covering this expansive parking lot.

Let’s Change This

There are already some Code changes that have been made that will make sure that some of these car-tastrophes don’t keep happening (as noted above). But we are still getting some developments that include far more parking than is needed.

Though I didn’t get over to Front Range Village, Chris Johnson from Bike Fort Collins did. The following image is embedded from Facebook. If you click through, you can click and drag on the image to get a 180 degree view.

Front Range Village is a fairly new development, built in 2008. If parking space requirements have changed since that time, then we should see that reflected in even more current developments such as the King Soopers that’s been proposed where Kmart was recently located. Kroger is currently proposing just under 400 spaces in that location with 60 of them being dedicated to a Park ‘n Ride for MAX users. That means they’re expected well over 300 customers at a time in that retail location. We’ll have to wait and see if they actually reach those numbers.

In the meantime, what can we do to encourage the City to manage land use more effectively so that we’re not getting these vast unused asphalt covered spaces? We need to be actively involved in the upcoming City Plan discussion that should be starting in 2017 after the Downtown Plan and the Old Town Neighborhoods Plan have been approved by City Council.

Be sure to continue following Pedal Fort Collins in order to be alerted as soon as City Plan events get underway.