The District Detroit has gotten a lot of critical media coverage. It’s pretty clear that the renderings portrayed when the project launched haven’t matched the reality.

Instead of city-like streets full of life and teaming with offices, retail and residential — it’s a sea of surface parking lots.

Although the Ilitch organization has been getting a lot of the arrows (see this great piece in the Detroit News for the latest) — and this isn’t a pass — maybe it’s time we also look at the city of Detroit’s own policies that helped make this happen.

There was a pair of interviews that ran in the Freep and Crain’s with Christopher Ilitch, head of Olympia Development and scion of the Ilitch family. In short, the buck stops with him when it comes to their companies. Until now, the company has been silent in the face of criticism.

He acknowledged that their timelines were too aggressive, but something specifically caught my eye.

“The final thing I would say to you on that, which I don’t see reported a lot, is that the city required that we provide 3,000 parking spaces within 1,000 feet of the arena, so nearly all of the surface lots that were north of I-75 were mandated. That’s an easy (question). If we want fans to have a place to park their cars, we have to have parking lots or parking structures.”

Crain’s Detroit Business

Thing is, he’s right. And he should have pointed this out a long time ago.

Over the years I’ve covered or help cover Detroit, I’ve seen a litany of urban, walkable projects die or get muddled because of parking requirements.

I did some looking, and those requirements exist to this day. Specifically, page 595 of this zoning ordinance document.

It mandates one parking spot for every six seats in an arena or stadium with 1,000 feet.

The capacity of Little Caesars Arena is listed at as much as 22,000 for concerts (20,491 for basketball and 19,515 for ice hockey).

Doing the quick math, that’s a mandate of 3,666 spots within 1,000 feet of the building.

Parking structures on average cost $19,700 per space. So you’d be looking at more than $72 million in garage costs to meet the city’s legal requirements.

Reports say that Olympia Development takes in about $10 million in parking revenue each year.

Clearly, as we have surface parking lots today, the math for them did not add up.

If you dig deeper — and yes, I’m simplifying this — you see that the city also mandates one parking spot for every 100 feet of usable space in a retail or commercial development. So every 1,000 square feet in the city requires 10 spaces. And at least one parking space for every two employees working somewhere.

For residential, lofts require 1.25 spaces for every unit. Same for multi-family units unless they’re for the elderly.

Single family developments require two spaces by law.

So you legally cannot build what many advocates of transit and urbanism call for in Detroit. There is an exception for being close to a high-transit corridor, but there aren’t many of those in the city.

The TL;DR? If this doesn’t get changed, it’s hard to think that the city of Detroit will have a renaissance that doesn’t completely revolve around the car. We’ve written car culture into law.

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