701 Water Street: Why building more downtown housing for cars may be short-sighted

As the City debates the proposed building of a new parking garage on Market Street downtown, a two-story, 390-space parking deck across the street sits nearly empty...

As the City debates the proposed building of a new parking garage on Market Street downtown, a two-story, 390-space parking deck across the street sits nearly empty, the result of some larger trends in transportation and work-life the City may also want to consider.

As Kittelson & Associates, a transportation consulting firm pointed out pre-pandemic, the rise of remote work, ride-sharing services, micro-mobility like scooters and electric bikes, and automated vehicle technology will have a dramatic effect on the future of transportation.

"As transformational technologies continue to decrease in cost and increase in popularity, we will see impacts not only on our transportation system but also on the way we use land...vehicle storage facilities are an important part of the discussion."

Indeed, remote work (and investment in and expansion of broadband service to be able to do that), shopping and the delivery of other services online, the predicted leveling off and decline in personal car ownership, the development of transportation technologies, and investment in public transportation could eventually make existing surface parking lots and parking garages obsolete, or at least in the short term, severely underused, particularly in downtown urban centers. As Kittelson & Associates notes, a growing number of developers, designers and engineers have started building new parking garages that can be switched to other uses in anticipation of these trends. And a few years ago designers already began anticipating having to convert hulking, underused parking garages into housing.

Ironically, just across the street from the proposed location of the new Market Street parking garage, the former LexisNexis building at 701 Water Street has a largely unused two-story, 390-space parking deck, as at one time the company had 500 employees on-site at the downtown location. However, after selling the building in 2014 and downsizing over the years the company finally left the building altogether last May. Today, all of the remaining employees work remotely. UVIMCO, the UVA investment management office that manages the school's endowment, and Merkle/RKG (Merkle acquired Charlottesville-based Rimm-Kaufman Group-RKG in 2014), a global marketing firm, currently occupy the building, but much of the remaining space in the building is available for lease. UVIMCO has a staff of 10 and Merkle/RKG's listing on LinkedIn shows 27 employees.

Last November, 800 employees at the large State Farm office building on Pantops were told to start working from home. LexisNexis, like State Farm and many other companies, have realized that it's cheaper to have people work from home than to lease or buy them a workspace. Even before the pandemic, State Farm was conducting aggressive sale-leasebacks of its operation centers, as they did with their Pantops Center, and after ordering people to work from home during the pandemic the company announced it wouldn't be renewing leases on those centers.

Apex Clean Energy will have an underground parking deck for about 300 cars when their downtown building is finished, the CODE Building downtown will have room beneath it for about 70 cars, and the nearby 3Twenty3 office building has about 200 parking spaces underground. But how many of the people who are supposed to work in those buildings will be working remotely now? Even just a decade ago it made perfect sense to build urban parking garages, as they're obviously a lot better than surface parking lots, but remote work, more online services, and transportation technologies have suddenly changed the transportation landscape.

The pandemic has also forced courts, schools, and government services to go remote, which they have always been resistant to do, and in many cases we've seen that this can be a positive development that may stick around. The DMV, for instance, seems to have finally realized that many of its services don't require people to wait for hours in physical locations in what sometimes feels like a dystopian nightmare. “Now serving, QR104…” Likewise, courts around the country have realized that remote services aren't just a workaround in a crisis but perhaps a way to reduce barriers to justice. Instead of having to get off work, find childcare, arrange for transportation, many people can take advantage of virtual hearings, e-file documents, and fill out court forms online. Not to mention legislative measures in the works to reduce court proceedings in general.

The proposed Market Street parking garage is designed to serve the new County court complex nearby, but it may be worth thinking about how the delivery of court services could be changing in the near future, along with transportation technology and work itself, before we build any more housing for cars.