Empty parking lot at a big strip center

Visitor Question: When you stop and look at it, a huge strip center near my house is really ugly. Mostly my husband and I don't pay attention, but one day we went for a bike ride and commented to each other about how the parking lot was only one fourth full. Our city doesn't require any trees or anything, so there was just a big expanse of dark gray out toward the main road, since the cars and any people on foot were concentrated in the area closest to the businesses.

There are a couple of fast food stores out by the four or five-lane road too, and those had a few cars as well. But in the middle, there was nothing.

Can we succeed in getting our city to force the owners of this conglomeration of chain stores to plant some shrubbery or even trees so there would be something to look at besides a big ugly slab of gray?

Editors Reply: To answer your question narrowly, it is difficult to impossible in most states to require developers to install parking lot landscaping after a parking lot already has been built. You might want to ask your city’s attorney if they can think of any current ordinances that might apply to this situation and whether they know of any other cities being successful in imposing a requirement after development approval has been obtained.

Gutsy city governments no doubt could pass an ordinance requiring landscaping on all private parking lots in the city, but most will not agree to apply a landscape requirement on existing parking areas. The arguments for any successful passage of a new ordinance likely would hinge on environmental concerns, including flood prevention or lowering of ambient air temperatures.

We used a flood prevention example above because a newer school of parking lot landscaping talks about "low-impact development," in which planting beds are lower than the elevation of the parking lot itself in order to collect stormwater before it drains from the parking lot into the stormwater system, carrying oily pollutants from the parking lot along with it or in the worst case, causing flash flooding.

For your particular situation, we think a direct approach to the current owners of the lot might be your best course of action. Granted, you aren’t going to get immediate results by having such a conversation, but maybe the next time the parking lot is due for paving, they will remember your concern. Approach the owners of the center with the idea that you would like to see them more successful in attracting customers, and that you believe that one way to do this would be to make the parking lot more attractive and also a few degrees cooler on a hot summer day.

Parking lot owners we know and have worked with have been very resistant to installing landscaping on the basis of cost. First, there's a cost in breaking up pavement to make way for landscaped medians or islands. Second, of course the expense of installing the landscaping itself can add up. But when we have had these conversations, as we have done, we believe that it is the third cost, the maintenance cost, that is the biggest concern.

Sometimes this is unspoken, but really, it doesn’t take a gardening genius to realize that a little plot of dirt in the middle of a big, hot parking lot probably isn't the best growing environment. Owners are afraid, with some justification, that it will be difficult to establish their plantings, that frequent watering will be required at least for a couple of growing seasons, and that trees and shrubs need to be pruned, treated for pests, fertilized, and who knows what else.

This leads to our recommendation that before you approach the owners or their representatives, you need to have thought about how you might relieve them of these worries. Does a nearby landscaper offer maintenance services at a reasonable cost? Can you find a landscaper that will guarantee the plantings for the first year or even two years? Is the center part of a business district that collects taxes that may be used for beautification? Does the sewer district or department, or a water quality office, have any funding that would help cover the cost? Is there a gardening club that would take over the spot (may be a reasonable option especially in a small city or town)?

Your question brings to mind another issue that is more common than you might think. When you start investigating, you might find that there is more than one owner or ownership group involved in what you perceive to be one giant parking lot. If that is the case, this will be an even more difficult project, but meet with the owners one at a time to see what you can accomplish. If you convince one owner, the others may follow suit simply to save face or take advantage of what they see as a small increase in popularity for the area that is properly landscaped.

Incidentally, what you describe as a big strip center may actually be called a power center in the real estate world. Power centers typically have several big box stores as anchors, rather than simply smaller shops. Don't be surprised if you hear the term power center as you pursue this.

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