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Who Cares About Car Parking? Birmingham Property's Brave New Future

This week plans to limit car parking at a Jewellery Quarter apartment scheme caused uproar in the Birmingham City council chamber. Just 17 spaces for 259 apartments was an outrage, councillors said.

Yet for the property industry, the real outrage would be wasting space on unwanted car parking. That floorspace could be used for other, more valued, amenities.

As motor-city Birmingham transforms itself into a sustainable transport hub, can property lead the way?

Heavy traffic congestion motorway

Ten years ago nobody in Birmingham property was agnostic about car parking. The vexed question of car parking ratios cropped up in every discussion about office space, and the number of car parking spaces was mentioned in the same breath as the number of square feet. A typical 2008 deal saw 78K SF at Brindleyplace come with 75 car parking spaces.

The residential sector was the same, or worse: it was widely assumed that city centre apartments wouldn't work without at least one dedicated space for each flat (although one for each bed would be better). In 2008 the 244 apartments at the Cube came with 339 parking spaces.

For some people car parking is still the big issue. Plans to demolish a multi-storey car park in Birmingham's Jellewery Quarter as part of a 14-storey plan for 259 apartments (with just 17 parking spaces) was branded an "insult" by city councillors, the Birmingham Post reported.

Is this a reflection of real occupier demand for parking spaces — or are councillors a little out of touch?

Car parking: very last century

Millenium Point Car Park Birmingham
Millenium Point Car Park

“Generally demand for car parking has fallen away significantly,” Bruntwood Head of Birmingham Rob Valentine said. “In our space we have occupiers like Arcadis, who have 25K SF at Cornerblock, but who have no car parking spaces at all.”

Valentine said social change and public transport improvements are responsible for the sudden drop in demand for car parking. “We have excellent public transport, and it’s a cultural thing — after all, what employer wants to create a situation in which one member of staff gets a space and another doesn’t? It says all kinds of things about what you think of your staff.”

Whilst some occupiers, like those involved in HS2 site visits, value some city centre parking, Valentine said these tenants are the exception not the rule.

“If I was developing Grade A Birmingham office space today I would be reluctant to include car parking. I’d think I could use that space for something better, perhaps for the amenities that tenants really do value,” he said.

Once-common car parking ratios of one space for each 1.2K SF now seem absurdly generous, he said.

Not a priority for millennials

Selfridges department store at Birmingham's Bullring shopping centre
The iconic Selfridges department store at Birmingham Bullring

Those occupiers with a strong under-40s demographic are even clearer: talking about car parking feels like a conversation their parents would have.

“Whilst I wouldn't go so far as to say that city parking spaces are redundant, they're certainly not a priority for Headspace tenants. For our members it's proximity to public transport which is a key driver and that certainly is a big consideration for us when choosing buildings," Headspace Group Head of Client Experience Jonathan Hausmann said, soon after signing for a 36K SF office at Somerset House.

"Our office will be a stone’s throw from the three central train stations. We’re much more likely to be asked about bike storage than we are about car parking facilities," he said.

However, Hausmann insists disinterest in car parking is not just a millennial thing. "Our tenants range from fledgling startups, to PLCs, so we have a broad demographic of people using the space and that attitude seems to be generally shared across the board," he said.

Is this a Birmingham transport revolution? Not yet, according to JLL Director Jonathan Carmalt. “It would seem logical that as public transport improves and connectivity increases there will be less of a requirement for car parking at offices in city centres," he said. "However, we’re not quite there yet in Birmingham with viable, reliable alternatives and comprehensive coverage is still lacking. So in some cases car parking may be reducing, but it’s not a viable option for all to simply dismiss at this point.

“Tackling air pollution in the city and the introduction of electric vehicles will also inevitably bring about a change in office design, as could ever-increasing traffic congestion or some form of taxation, as evidenced with the relatively recent upturn in people cycling to work, creating more demand for showers and cycle storage blocks."

Carmult's conclusion is that Birmingham is heading in the right direction but more work is needed to make a car parking-free city plausible.

I'd rather run to work

Birmingham car park

For a sense of how much things have changed — and how much further they might change, talk to GVA Director George Jennings.

“When I started at GVA 18 years ago you got your own parking space — everyone did. Today I don’t need it, and GVA doesn’t need them in the same way. Today it’s just not necessary. It's not environmentally friendly to drive, and it's not actually pleasant to drive into the city centre,” Jennings said.

Car parking ratios have moved out to one space for each 4K SF in the central business district, and it may move out even further. “It’s quicker to use public transport, agile working means staff aren’t always on-site anyway, and why would any employer want to pay £4K a year for parking in the central business district? Many people would rather run in to work anyway, it’s much healthier,” Jennings added. So much for the perk of a dedicated parking space.

Landlords like Bruntwood's Valentine wonder if there is much long-term future in car parking. "Technology is going to drive requirements here, so things like automated vehicles could mean we just don't need the facilities we've had up until now. What purpose will car parking serve in those circumstances? A sensible landlord would be building in the potential for reuse of car parking space for other purposes," he said.

Birmingham's love affair with the car is not over. But the passion is waning. Car parking spaces are not the valuable assets they used to be.