A nearly empty parking lot outside of Oriole Park at Camden Yards. Screenshot via Google Maps.
A nearly empty parking lot outside of Oriole Park at Camden Yards. Screenshot via Google Maps.

With the news this month that Orioles CEO John Angelos is hoping to develop the large surface parking lots near Oriole Park at Camden Yards into a mixed-use project — and the news that the state has pushed back on the idea, risking the loss of a storied baseball team for the sake of some parking spaces — a relatively recent neologism has again shown its relevance.

The term? “Parking crater.”

The concept behind the name “parking crater” has been around for a long time, but the current labeling comes from activist bloggers at StreetsBlog who, in 2013, started using the phrase, according to Bill Delaney, writing for The Jaxson.

The term “parking crater” is a reference to the “crater” that forms when surface parking — usually in the form of more than one large surface parking lot — forms a physical depression in the city and exterminates virtually all street life for blocks at a stretch.

Parking craters usually are on the edges of a downtown, but as Delaney notes, in the case of cities like Jacksonville, a struggling municipality may try to please drivers until there is more space at its desiccated core dedicated to surface parking lots, garages and empty land than standing buildings.

I was born in an area where the main city, Detroit, has some of the worst parking craters in existence. For decades, regional leaders in Metro Detroit, with help from wealthy land hoarders like Mike Ilitch and Matty Moroun, have tried to suck in drivers by offering parking instead of decent transit — often on the sites of buildings removed through what is frequently called “demolition by neglect.” 

For nearly as many decades, the folly of this approach has been apparent to anyone who cared to look, with white-knuckled drivers zooming out into the suburbs to buy groceries after work, rather than spending their time and money downtown, as pedestrians tend to do.

Thankfully, Baltimore is not Detroit. Unlike the Motor City, Charm City has two rail lines directly feeding into its stadium complex, with another likely on the way, assuming there’s enough citizen pushback to keep it from being watered down into bus rapid transit (BRT).

In Baltimore, on an Orioles game night, the big event starts in Hunt Valley or Glen Burnie or Odenton, with orange-clad rail passengers swapping stories and amateur pregame analysis among friendly strangers. Anyone who drives to a game is missing out on half the experience.

So even as I wince to be supporting a pair of ultra wealthy men — Angelos and developer David Cordish — who want free or discounted land, I have to ask: In the middle of a climate crises that this year has seen the hottest month globally in recorded human history, is clinging to a couple giant parking lots in lieu of mixed-use buildings and a rail-heavy strategy really a good idea?

Despite being a major East Coast city along the Northeast Corridor, Baltimore in recent decades has been famously regressive in its approach to complete streets, with a 2022 attempt to remove some parking minimums dying in committee, at a time when cities across the country have been easing their restrictions. (The city also admitted earlier this month that it had built less than a third of the cycling lanes it had previously planned to have added by now.)

But even for a city with Baltimore’s recent habits, there are great benefits to be had from paying attention to people instead of automobiles.

To see the benefits of such human-first strategies, city leaders need look only an hour away, to Washington DC. In the 1970s, the national capital was full of its own parking craters, but over the next 30 years, most of those spaces were gradually replaced with buildings for humans and, somehow, people still came to the District. The lack of loads of free space for parked cars didn’t seem to stop them. It’s almost as if they were coming for something other than the parking lots. 

The story is well-known to Baltimoreans and is told best by the change of terminology: What was known as the Baltimore-Washington area as recently as 2016, when I emigrated from Maryland, is now known simply as the DMV area, with the trend lines having crossed in 2020. One of those letters stands for “District,” and the other two for states on either side. None of them stands for “Baltimore.” DC’s urban strategy had a lot to do with that rebalancing of identity and the population growth that spurred it.

Baltimore and Maryland decision-makers face a choice: They can go down the path followed by Detroit and Jacksonville and another half-dozen cities whose downtowns are slowly dying, surrounded by growing parking craters, or they can hold their noses, give the seas of asphalt to the tastelessly rich guys, embrace the city’s legacy as an East Coast rail powerhouse and see what blend of housing, retail and entertainment springs up in place of rusting, depreciating autos.

In most big American cities and with most regional leaders, the choice would be considered an easy one. There’s no reason why it shouldn’t be an easy move here too.

Note: This story has been updated from an earlier version to more accurately reflected the ownership of the lots, which are controlled by the State of Maryland.

Patrick Maynard is a former Baltimorean who has done staff or freelance writing from six countries. He lives in Berlin, where he also writes software.

Patrick Maynard is a former Baltimorean now living in Berlin. His staff or freelance writing has appeared in more than a dozen publications, including VICE, The Independent and The Baltimore Sun.

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  1. Theres plenty of parking craters surrounding both Ravens and Os stadiums. A mixed-use development would be great for the city and people! So disappointing the city is rejecting the idea.

  2. Yes, you can never have too much development…….we need more shopping centers and mixed-use developments…….going into Baltimore (I live in Annapolis) is more dangerous than going to Kyiv!!!! The Orioles and Ravens aren’t THAT GOOD!!!

  3. The parking lots are owned by the state, not the City, and its the state thats balking. And the real issue isn’t a deal on the parking lots. Its the additional $300 million subsidy Angelos wants for the development, on top of the $600 million the state previously agreed to provide for stadium upgrades as soon as he signs the lease extention. If he wants to raise private capital and/or risk his own money, a deal can be worked out on the land.

    1. Thanks, Barbara, and sorry for the mistake. I have requested a correction to the piece. Obviously, the fault is mine, and I’m extremely embarrassed about the mislabeling of responsibility for the parking lots. Hopefully the piece will be updated quickly.

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