No Matter How They Are Pitched, Parking Solutions Often Fall Short

By Roger K. Lewis
Saturday, August 19, 2006

Will parking increasingly shape our cities? Are our children and grandchildren destined to spend ever more time searching for that elusive and increasingly costly 9-by-18-foot rectangle?

Interest in mass transit and pedestrian-oriented development is increasing, largely because of worsening traffic congestion. Yet Americans are reluctant to give up the freedom and flexibility of driving. So, they ponder two questions when starting the car: What will be the best route, and will there be a place to park?

Indeed, for most people, parking is likely to remain a key factor in choosing shopping or entertainment destinations.

Architects and planners have tried for decades to tame the parking beast, to design projects whose aesthetic character is not determined primarily by the need to accommodate automobiles. They generally succeed when they are able to put parking underground, to disperse it in well-landscaped parking lots behind and between buildings rather than facing streets, or to embed garages within city blocks, concealed by street-fronting buildings. Occasionally designers even succeed at creating free-standing parking structures that look good.

But most parking lots and parking structures are eyesores.

You see the same building and parking patterns everywhere. Along commercial strips, rows of parking spaces stretch out and fill the space between roads and buildings. Shopping centers are agglomerations of retail boxes engulfed by asphalt paving.

Every retail real estate developer and retail tenant, from Maine to California, will tell you the same thing: On-site parking for shoppers must be adjacent to the road, clearly visible, ample and as close as possible to store entrances. Otherwise, customers won't pull in to shop.

But suburbs aren't the only place where parking can be the prevailing visual theme. In some cities, parking can disproportionately affect architectural imagery.

Consider distant Anchorage, where I spent several days last month. Downtown Anchorage is awash in asphalt. Featureless parking lots occupy many of the relatively small mid-city blocks. With its loosely built urban fabric, Anchorage looks like many small, American cities. Were it not for its waterfront along Cook Inlet, an arm of the Gulf of Alaska, and the surrounding, snow-capped mountains, Anchorage could be a city in Florida, Texas or California.

Unlike other cities, however, Anchorage had an opportunity a few decades ago for a different look. It was rebuilt following a severe 1964 earthquake that devastated coastal Alaska. In the process, Alaskans could have adopted urban design standards requiring parking lots to be placed at the center of blocks, behind buildings. Because deciduous as well as evergreen vegetation grows in Anchorage, appropriate landscaping also could have been required. Regrettably, it didn't happen.

By contrast, in Washington, surface parking lots have all but disappeared within the central city. Today the challenge facing the District is ensuring adequate curbside parking and enough garages in areas where uses and densities are changing.

Nothing illustrates this better than the debate over parking for the new baseball stadium. At issue is the configuration of garages for a thousand or so cars that the city must provide next to the stadium. Should they be below-ground, above-ground, or both?

What about parking dispersal? City officials have identified thousands of parking spaces that exist or will exist within walking distance of the stadium.

Nevertheless the city is still obligated to provide parking next to the stadium on opening day. The Nationals' owners believe only one strategy -- free-standing, above-ground garages -- can meet that obligation and keep the District from incurring enormous financial penalties. They also say that without adequate, adjacent parking when the stadium opens, fans will stay away and the team will lose money.

The mayor, city planners and real estate developers advocate constructing parking garages within mixed-use buildings on the blocks north of the stadium. This would enliven streets, enhance neighborhood revitalization and hide parking behind and below new retail, entertainment, hotel and residential uses. But it also could produce buildings higher than the stadium.

As Washington Post sports writer Thomas Boswell observed in a recent column, tall buildings could block views of the Capitol dome and city skyline from seats overlooking the stadium's right field. Cityscape views are an essential aesthetic aim of the stadium's placement and configuration. Expressing skepticism about the architectural quality of 13-story buildings yet to be designed, Boswell fears that such buildings would "dwarf the new stadium . . . just to settle a fuss over 925 parking spaces."

All options entail risk. Free-standing garages, easier to build and lower than the stadium, could be unattractive and deaden the streetscape. A pair of mixed-use, 13-story buildings with parking garages inside would be functionally and economically desirable, and they might even be award-winning architecture. If not properly designed, though, they could compromise views from inside the stadium and also take longer to build.

The least-risky option is a compromise: Embed garages within mixed-use buildings whose scale and composition are in harmony with the stadium, the neighborhood and the city beyond.

With Green Line Metro stations near the stadium, Washington could have contemplated adopting the parking policy of midtown Manhattan, where high density and high buildings are allowed but where garages under buildings are restricted to relatively few parking spaces. Because parking is so limited in New York, people have to use mass transit and taxis, as well as their feet.

Perhaps this will happen someday in Washington. If it does, it may not be because of parking-space limitations or parking fees, but rather because gasoline will have become unaffordable or even unavailable.

Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect and a professor of architecture at the University of Maryland.

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