Parking on campus, past and present

    Before Feb. 7, walking to the Henry Crown Sports Pavilion/Norris Aquatic Center meant navigating through a Frogger-like array of parked cars. Since Feb. 7, those cars are gone, as Northwestern will begin extensive construction and renovation of its North campus athletic facilities.

    The asphalt lot, a favorite of parents on move-in day, faculty and SPAC workout warriors, will soon be replaced by a six-level parking structure. It will stand adjacent to the soon-to-be renovated SPAC, new training facilities and an indoor practice field. Coupled with the undergoing construction of a new visitor center, the new complex could significantly reshape Northwestern’s transportation landscape and transition the university toward a more bicycle and pedestrian-friendly campus.

    Zoning out

    Evanston, like many municipalities, requires buildings to have a minimum number of off-street parking spaces. The number is determined by the building’s zoning permit and is precisely laid out in the municipal code. For example, single-family houses need two parking spaces while office buildings must offer five spaces per 1,000 square feet.

    University buildings must adhere to municipal code as well, and there is a separate section of the ordinance specifically for universities in Evanston. Parking requirements have existed since at least 1940, as stated in Hoerdt v. City of Evanston, a zoning dispute between apartment building owners and the city in 1968. Similar requirements exist in cities and suburbs throughout the country.

    Parking requirements upended many American cities in the middle of the 20th century. Los Angeles, for example, has one of the largest parking requirements. As a result, it is one of the most car-friendly, public transportation-unfriendly urban areas in the country. To build a mall in LA, one would have to devote 50 percent more land to parking lots than the mall itself. 

    “Parking is a chronic problem because we keep overbuying cars as an American people, and they all have to be put somewhere,” said Professor Henry Binford, who specializes in urban history.

    Eran Ben-Joseph, professor of urban studies and planning at MIT, estimated in his recent book that there are 500 million parking spaces in the United States, enough to pave over Delaware and Rhode Island combined. There may be as many as eight parking spots per car in America, according to The New York Times.

    “There is evidence that as we become more motor vehicle-dependent, we become less healthy,” Binford said. The unforeseen consequences of parking regulations – more cars, more air pollution, more congestion, more urban sprawl and less pedestrian-friendliness – may outweigh the benefit of convenient parking.

    This graph shows the dramatic rise in cost of parking at Northwestern, based on documents from the University Archives. Data were not available for some years. Graph by author.

    The rearview

    A trip to the University Archives in Deering Library revealed that for more than 50 years, parking shortages have been the norm. Northwestern faces more space constraints than many of its peer institutions. Sandwiched between Lake Michigan and downtown Evanston, there is little room to build parking lots to accommodate the thousands of cars that descend upon campus each weekday.

    In 1955, Northwestern established the Division of Parking and Traffic. It regulated and oversaw university parking lots, and sold permits to faculty, staff and students. The division has since been reorganized as a department within University Police.

    For the 1955-56 academic year, a permit to park on campus cost $3; at $510 for 2012-13, the price has multiplied to 170 times its original price. Meanwhile, a yearly permit to park at Ryan Field costs $25 and has not changed in over a dozen years.

    Parking shortages have occurred with some regularity since 1956, when parking was banned along Sheridan Road to accommodate more traffic.

    In a 1966 article in The Daily Northwestern titled “Parking squeeze tests tempers,” then-traffic and parking director Stan Gross said that Northwestern faced a shortage in parking, particularly for the 2,700 commuter students. However, he said that new parking lots on the nearly-finished Lakefill would relieve the overflow.

    By the mid-'70s, even with a bout of construction, Northwestern lots were filled to 92 percent capacity during school days according to a 1975 memo written by Barton-Aschman Associates. Northwestern hired the firm to study its parking crisis.

    The memo estimated that 2,790 vehicles per day parked at NU in 1975. By way of comparison, the new SPAC and visitor center lots will house about 1,700 vehicles. Barton-Aschman predicted “a long-term decrease in the use of the private automobiles.” They recommended that Northwestern limit student parking, limit the people who could park during peak hours and to use the parking lots by Dyche Stadium. Sometime thereafter, Northwestern began shuttle service to and from what is now known as Ryan Field.

    In the 1980s, the parking permit prices rose dramatically as Evanston levied and then repeatedly raised taxes on the permits. The tax makes up more than 20 percent of a permit’s cost, according to a letter sent out to the Northwestern community in 2002.

    The latest crunch in Northwestern parking occurred in the early 2000s, when renovations to SPAC, including the addition of the tennis center, created a parking crunch on central campus. When construction finished, parking eased on the north and central parts of campus.

    This map from a 1963 brochure illustrates the parking situation in the 1963-64 academic year. Image courtesy of the University Archives.

    Current construction, future plans

    Preliminary construction has already begun on the SPAC lot, according to Bob Gross, project manager of the SPAC lot construction. Workers are conducting investigation work of the lot and will soon begin the insulation of utility pipes and wires beneath the lot. Gross said the project’s expected date of completion is January 2014.

    The structure, as per a mandate for sustainability, will be built to LEED specifications, a rigorous environmental standard. According to Al Cubbage, vice president for university relations, all new Northwestern buildings will attempt to earn the LEED certificate. The parking structure will feature “demand-responsive lighting,” which will only be activated when cars are moving on a given level of the lot. The University of California-Davis reduced energy consumption by 80 percent when it switched its parking garage lights to demand-responsive LEDs.

    The two major campus construction projects, the athletic facility and visitor center, stem from the 2009 Evanston Campus Framework Plan. The plan was a collaborative effort by students, alumni, faculty, administrators and Facilities Management.

    The plan envisions a literally and figuratively greener campus. It calls for replacing the lakefront surface lots with underground lots or multi-level parking structures.

    “We are taking out parking lots and putting in green space,” Cubbage said. Parking will be pushed toward the edges of campus. He said that the completion of the athletics complex will create room for additional green space on North Campus. Improving pedestrian and bicycle pathways on campus are one of the core goals of the framework plan.

    Compared to peer institutions, Northwestern “doesn’t have as much land or room for expansion,” Binford said. Instead, the university must be creative and efficient in its land allocation in order to accommodate the masses of people, cars and bikes on campus.

    Designing transportation infrastructure to meet the needs of the university is a complex venture as it requires forecasting future growth and transportation needs. Northwestern’s Transportation Center has built a reputation as a premier institute for transportation research. But according to Joseph Schofer, professor of civil and environmental engineering who specializes in transportation planning and management, the administration has rarely, if ever, consulted the center about the university’s construction projects.

    Schofer could not recall an instance in his 42 years as a Northwestern professor when the Transportation Center aided the university in its planning. However, Schofer added that the center’s staff has plenty of important research to conduct.

    Until construction on the SPAC lot is completed, alternate parking is available to the south and east of SPAC. Visitors may now park in the lots directly east of SPAC. Parking will be available on a “first-come, first-serve basis,” according to a Jan. 31 University release.

    The lots’ capacity will be tested later in the year during the American Craft Exposition, an annual craft show. The show has attracted as many as 10,000 visitors in years past.

    Dan Bulfin, SPAC director of recreational sports, said that parking was not a problem for SPAC visitors and staff on Thursday, the first day the lot was closed. At midday, the south and east SPAC lots were “half-full,” he said.


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