The parking lot in front of the vacant building at the corner of School Road and Central Avenue in McKinleyville - once a Ray’s Food Place - takes up more than 3 acres of land and includes about 350 parking spaces. That equates to almost 400 square feet per parking space. Remember, parking doesn’t only require space for the parking spaces themselves, but also space for driveways and aisles for cars to reach the parking spaces.

Even when Ray’s was still open, there were always plenty of empty parking spaces here. Now the whole 3-acre lot is always basically empty, aside from haphazardly parked U-haul trucks associated with the business next door.

More than 16,000 people live in McKinleyville, making it our region’s third largest community. This property is less than half a mile from the future Town Center, and across the street from a bus stop. It should be bustling with activity, but instead it’s an empty asphalt wasteland. As a community, we can do better than this. We can put this land to better use. 

Perhaps the most obvious thing we could do is build housing here. Home prices and rents in McKinleyville and the surrounding region have shot up over the last few years, indicating an urgent need for more housing, and this would be a good place to build some of it. Simply replacing every currently vacant parking space with an apartment would provide 350 studio apartments. 

But the actual potential is much greater. For example, the Eureka City Council recently accepted a proposal by the Wiyot Tribe’s Dishgamu Humboldt Community Land Trust to build affordable housing for more than 80 people on a downtown parking lot that’s less than a third of an acre. The design includes 2, 3, and 4 bedroom apartments and will create wonderful additions to downtown Eureka. The massive unused parking lot on School Road is ten times bigger. Imagine how many families could be provided a home here!

This parking lot is a particularly egregious example, but when it comes to empty asphalt it’s just the tip of the iceberg. Look carefully at satellite images of the development all along Central Avenue, and you’ll find that parking is the area’s single biggest land use. And most of those parking spaces sit empty most of the time.

This isn’t just a McKinleyville thing. A new map of Eureka’s downtown area shows that more than a third of developable land is covered by parking lots. And there are at least 2,000 parking spaces within a quarter mile of the Arcata Plaza, including the big “parking crater” at the Uniontown Shopping Center.

This documented abundance of parking may seem contrary to your personal experiences. Maybe you’ve hunted for parking near the Plaza during a Saturday farmers’ market, or failed to find a spot in front of your favorite shop in Old Town. Here’s the simple explanation: it is physically impossible to provide parking for all who want it directly adjacent to a destination. When you try, you end up with something like that old Ray’s parking lot or the one at Eureka’s Bayshore Mall, with parking lots so large that many of the spaces can be multiple city blocks from the entrance anyway. When the same parking spaces are spread out over actual city blocks you can’t see them all at once, but that doesn’t mean the empty spaces aren’t there! 

Here’s another thing to consider: currently almost 100% of the parking spaces in our downtowns and town centers are free to use. Local government and private land owners pay to build and maintain all this parking, but drivers don’t pay to use it. As a society, we don’t provide even the most basic necessities like food, shelter, and medical care for free - but we provide free parking! If we charged drivers even a fraction of the true cost of parking, there would be even more empty spaces.

Look at your own neighborhood through this lens, and perhaps you’ll see something similar: a bunch of parking spaces that are offered free to drivers, but still often sit empty. And even more spaces that would be empty if we didn’t subsidize driving by providing them for free. What’s more, these underutilized spaces are sometimes concentrated in parking lots in walkable, bikeable areas near bus stops! 

A mailer recently sent to Eureka residents by the Rob Arkley-led “Eureka Housing For All” group

Luckily, there are increasing opportunities to transform all this unneeded, underutilized, barren asphalt into things we really do need, like housing. Eureka is leading the way locally by offering up city-owned parking lots for affordable housing development, and their projects are shaping up to be a resounding success - as long as the city’s voters aren’t fooled by a cynical, misleading ballot initiative. Other local governments should take note of Eureka’s leadership in building on publicly owned lots. And new state laws which just took effect make it much easier to build affordable housing on commercially zoned, privately owned lots as well. 

What are we waiting for? We’ve already paved these particular acres of paradise. Let’s put up something better than a parking lot.

# # #

Colin Fiske is the executive director of the Coalition for Responsible Transportation Priorities.