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.”
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.