Suburbs take an urban turn as developers plan more underground parking

When a new Whole Foods store opened in North Bethesda recently, shoppers found their familiar organic laundry detergent and curried wheatberry salad, but something new caught many by surprise: underground parking.

Those accustomed to pulling into a vast parking lot and walking directly into the former Whole Foods six miles up Rockville Pike suddenly had to navigate a cavernous two-level garage before boarding elevators or escalators to reach the store entrance.

It’s been a rough ride for some. One surefire way to get under suburbanites’ skin is to mess with their parking, and there are few places more sacred, some say, than their wide-open grocery store lots.

“For me, parking in a garage for grocery shopping is really weird,” said Bolormaa Baljinnyam, 40, of Rockville as she waited May 24 for an elevator with a baguette in her cart. “It’s kind of not natural.”

As fellow shopper Marcia Simon, 53, of Potomac put it: “I hate it, hate it! I’ve been in a lot of indoor parking lots, and they don’t usually intimidate me, but this feels very crammed in and very tight.”


A car prepares to leave the underground parking garage of Harris Teeter in McLean. (Susan Biddle/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)

Such complaints highlight a cultural shift taking place as planners transform parts of the sprawling suburbs into urban hubs where the car will no longer be king. The vast parking lots born out of the 20th century suburban boom, particularly those near Metrorail stations, are giving way to more clusters of high-rise office buildings, condominiums and stores where people can walk more easily or park once for multiple activities.

Urban planners say the change is the only way the crowded Washington region can absorb unrelenting population growth without making the area’s stifling traffic even worse. Eliminating traditional parking lots, they say, also will alleviate environmental damage that occurs when rainwater runs off warm, dirty asphalt and eventually into streams.

Nationwide, about 800 million parking spaces cover more than 3.67 million acres, experts say. In Montgomery County, parking covers more than 12 square miles, or 2.5 percent of the county’s land, according to planners. In North Bethesda’s White Flint, where the new Whole Foods is, parking lots cover almost half of the land, they say. That makes walking more difficult and wastes precious space around a Metro Red Line station. Land near transit is used more efficiently, planners say, when developed into high-rise buildings with parking tucked underneath.

“Cars are still going to be there, but they’re not going to get the priority they did in previous decades,” said N’kosi Yearwood, a Montgomery planner for the White Flint area. “Walking will become much more important.”

Ed McMahon, a senior fellow at the Urban Land Institute, said he’s counted 14 grocery stores in the Washington area with parking garages.

“You’ll see a lot more of that going forward,” McMahon said. “Will Americans adapt? Absolutely.”

But it might take some time. At the Whole Foods in White Flint, store employees directed garage traffic during the first couple of weeks. Some motorists, apparently used to pulling directly into a surface lot, didn’t immediately consider continuing down another level to hunt for a space, said Barnaby Zall, who blogs about the area. Even a month after the store opened, frustrated honking is still plentiful.

A Whole Foods corporate spokeswoman declined to comment. However, Rod Lawrence of Chevy Chase-based JBG, which is developing the area with the new Whole Foods, said he anticipated some push back.

“It’s definitely a challenge for people to change their behavior,” Lawrence said. “We’re trying to offer something better, but there are some compromises.”

Lawrence said JBG incorporated into the garage lessons learned from a garage it built for a Whole Foods in Alexandria several years ago. Those changes included more entrances to the building above and wider aisles for cars to pass more easily, he said. The garage is designed to serve Whole Foods, residences above the supermarket and other stores and restaurants.

Jennifer Thompson, a spokeswoman for Harris Teeter, said eight of the grocery chain’s 31 stores in the Washington area have garage parking. She said customers like garages, especially in bad weather.

“They’ve been very well received,” Thompson said. “We make it as convenient as we can for them.”

Of course, Washington’s suburbs will retain plenty of surface parking. Developers say many strip malls will keep their large lots, particularly if they’re far from Metrorail stations and aren’t zoned for the high densities and mixed uses that make underground garages worth the significantly higher construction costs.

Surface lots cost about $2,000 to $5,000 per space to build, developers say, and underground garages cost up to $40,000 a space. Those higher costs pay off only if a developer can lease the same spaces to several different tenants — office tenants, residential companies and retailers — whose customers need parking at different times of the day and evening.

Evan Goldman, a vice president for Rockville-based Federal Realty, said his company has no plans to eliminate surface parking at any of its shopping centers located beyond short walks to Metrorail stops. However, Federal Realty is working on plans to redevelop Mid-Pike Plaza in North Bethesda, home to Toys R Us and about 20 acres of parking.

If approved, the enormous parking lot would someday be covered with 13 high-rise buildings covering nine blocks — about twice the size of the downtown Bethesda Row shopping and restaurant district. Yes, he said, underground garages will be the norm.

“I think once people get used to a parking structure, it doesn’t seem inconvenient anymore,” Goldman said. “It’s just how you go shopping.”

Katherine Shaver is a transportation and development reporter. She joined The Washington Post in 1997 and has covered crime, courts, education and local government but most prefers writing about how people get — or don’t get — around the Washington region.
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