Home » Opinion » Greening Up the Suburbs – What to do with Greenbelt’s Empty Parking Lots?

Greening Up the Suburbs – What to do with Greenbelt’s Empty Parking Lots?

by Jeff Lemieux

Last winter, my wife and I took a bike ride around Greenbelt, Maryland.  It was between 2 and 4pm on a Wednesday afternoon.  Our goal was to see how many parking lots around our shopping centers and office parks sit empty on an average workday.

What we found was pretty discouraging. The offices behind Greenway Center are surrounded by a moat of empty parking lots. The whole strip between Beltway Plaza and Breezewood Drive was completely empty, as were the upstairs parking levels. Capital Office Park had tier after tier of empty lots.

empty parking lot Capital Office Park along Cherrywood Lane
Capital Office Park along Cherrywood Lane

Although one day isn’t necessarily the average, and some office parks may have significant vacancies, it’s pretty obvious that Greenbelt’s commercial areas have at least twice as much parking as they currently need.  Maybe three times as much.

Why is this?  The answer always seems to be: “Because it’s the zoning rules.” The rules apparently require builders to pave more parking spaces than they estimate would ever be filled, even on the busiest day of the year. So we’ve engineered empty parking lots into our planning system. Unnecessary asphalt is a feature, not a bug.

empty parking lot
Empty Parking Lots Behind Beltway Plaza (Greenbelt Road at Cherrywood Lane)


empty parking lot
Unused Parking Areas Behind Greenway Center (Greenbelt Road at Hanover Parkway)


Greenbelt’s empty parking lots are ugly, and they are a tremendous waste of potentially useful space.  The runoff from the Greenbelt’s excess asphalt contributes to the frequent flooding along the NE Branch trail, which a key tributary of the Anacostia River, and parallels my bike commuting route to College Park, Hyattsville and DC.

What can we do about this?  In the long run, communities like Greenbelt need to fight for more sensible zoning rules that prioritize people and public use features over unnecessary car parking and sprawl facilitation. There is a public meeting next Tuesday (January 27th) at 6pm at the MNCPPC Administration building to explain our county’s plans for a zoning update that could help rein in incentives for “greenfield” sprawl and encourage re-development or retrofitting of already-paved suburban areas instead.

In the medium run, we should encourage mixed use areas (housing plus commercial plus office space in the same vicinity that can share parking throughout the day) and focus new residential development near Metrorail and along major bus routes instead in the middle of nowhere. We can push our city, county and state to truly implement “complete streets” that make it easier for people to walk, bike or take the bus to get around. Pleasant, complete streets allow people who don’t want to drive everywhere to walk, bike, or take the bus instead, which frees up road space for people who do need to drive. To implement all of this, we may need easier exceptions to the current rules, so that businesses and housing can move in or expand without necessarily adding unneeded parking spaces.

In the short run, I propose that owners of our local shopping centers and office buildings try an experiment:  In cooperation with the city and county, we should gradually convert some of their surplus asphalt surface parking to just plain old grass. That at least would let stormwater soak in and drain more slowly into our local streams. The developers and property owners would still have to mow, but that might not be much more expensive than maintaining asphalt. There would still be plenty of paved parking anyway. And the land would still be there for future development, if the owners change their minds or business starts to expand.

The experiment could fail.  Maybe a sudden upsurge in business activity would require that the grass be repaved or graveled over for parking. But I doubt that will happen anytime soon.

I predict that people would quickly see how unnecessary it is to have all that excess parking space, and would begin to propose community gardens, parks, or ball fields.  I think that would be great! For example, I think a soccer field, picnic area, and garden plots would be fantastic instead of empty asphalt behind Beltway Plaza. Perhaps the City could lease the land back from the owner for public use, at least for a few years.

There are lots of possibilities. Maybe as the economy improves the owners could build apartments or senior housing instead, with park space and play areas.  If the FBI relocates to the Greenbelt Metro, new nearby office space may eventually be needed. Either way, it would be better to have occupied buildings than unoccupied surface pavement.

When the South Core development along Greenbelt Road is finished and the connecting trails are built, it will be a short walk or bike trip from the Beltway Plaza area to the Greenbelt Metro station.  And with improved bus service to College Park and along Greenbelt Road, some residents wouldn’t even need cars.

But what’s lacking is leadership. The City of Greenbelt has made some improvements to Cherrywood Lane (which connects two areas with lots of wasted parking space, Beltway Plaza and Capital Office Park), but the city has very little money to do more. Prince George’s county historically hasn’t wanted to relinquish zoning and planning control. The state of Maryland just wants to build more highways through towns like Greenbelt – the State Highway Administration seems to have plenty of funds for highway guardrails and overhead signs, but if you ask them about safe bike lanes or crosswalks or bus lanes, they have limited experience and expertise.

Stylized Map of Beltway Plaza Highlighting Empty Parking Lots


A relatively simple, and completely reversible first step to greening up the suburbs would be replacing empty parking lots with something environmentally nicer and socially useful. Experimenting with grass “parking lots” instead of acres of empty asphalt could be way to get the process started.

Below is a photo digest of some of Greenbelt’s emptiest parking lots. Can you identify them?

mystery empty parking lot

mystery empty parking lot

mystery empty parking lot

mystery empty parking lot

mystery empty parking lot

mystery empty parking lot









Jeff Lemieux has been a Greenbelt resident for 26 years or so, living in GHI and Old Greenbelt.  He’s a bike commuter to DC, and his first foray into community activism (after avoiding it for years!) has been as a member of Greenbelt’s Advisory Planning Board.  Jeff’s wife Laurie owns a bike shop in College Park, and they often lead weekend bike rides toward Beltsville and Bowie or Hyattsville and DC.

10 Responses

  1. Kyle Anderson
    | Reply

    “Turn Greenbelt’s empty parking lots into a competitive synchronized car dancing arena! Just imagine the traffic jam of twerking sedans and breakdancing SUVs – the ultimate urban dance-off. Who needs parking when you can have the freshest moves on asphalt? Greenbelt, where every lot is a dance floor!”

  2. Doug Davies
    | Reply

    Ironically the parking lot behind the Target (jeff16.jpg) was one of the first LID installations in the country. You should check out http://www.lowimpactdevelopment.org and their story for more information on this. LID was born in Prince Georges County and although its an ugly parking lot it does hold quite a bit of significance for a huge movement in the US.

    • George Boyce
      | Reply

      Yes, the project we have is to pull together a team of youth to do exactly that, use google earth and other resources to survey and start modeling the city. Christer has donated the software, the remote servers, training, and even a few graphic cards to upgrade our workstations.

  3. Doug Davies
    | Reply

    Ironically the parking lot behind the Target (jeff16.jpg) was one of the first LID installations in the country. You should check out lowimpactdevelopment.org and their story for more information on this. LID was born in Prince Georges County and although its an ugly parking lot it does hold quite a bit of significance for a huge movement in the US.

  4. George Boyce
    | Reply

    At the MakerSpace, we have a new project to create a 3D interactive model of Greenbelt. Christer Lindström, CEO of 4Dialog, is a transportation expert from Sweden, and his focus is on sustainability and the environment. They target their system at city planners and developers. As issue like this is exactly what they seek to help solve.

    • Jeff
      | Reply

      George, it would be really cool if a student (or somebody) could get on Google Earth and just start counting/surveying the surface parking spots in Greenbelt. I wouldn’t be surprised if there were more parking places than people!

  5. Ginger
    | Reply

    FYI, the zoning meeting originally scheduled for tonight (January 27) has been cancelled and rescheduled for February 10.


  6. Diane Fishburne
    | Reply

    I’m always on the side of less run off and, obviously, smarter parking surfaces is a big part of that. Reducing the size is one way to upgrade. I am unlikely to make the meeting so wanted to make one small comment here and that is that un-paving and grass replacement can be made more cost effective by using native grasses that can be left unmown.

  7. Jeff
    | Reply

    Thanks Aileen. Don’t know how practical it would be to dig up parking lots in the short run, but some of them are in pretty bad shape so you never know. Mostly just trying to get people thinking about new possibilities. Lots of exciting new sustainable-ish development happening in College Park and I think Greenbelt should consider. If nothing else we need new revenue base and build better stuff on place of nonperforming pavement might be a start.

  8. Aileen Kroll
    | Reply


    What a great article and wonderful observations! Like most, I’ve seen what you’ve seen but you put the whole debacle into perspective. Yes, let’s ‘green’ Greenbelt.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *