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Aesthetics Need Not Take a Back Seat in Public Garage Design

If a site is large enough, the next best thing is a less costly above-grade but concealed parking garage. Such parking garages can be embedded within city blocks and surrounded by street-fronting buildings or enveloped by a wrapper of shops, offices, apartments or hotel rooms.

Flanked by preserved historic buildings in downtown Annapolis, the steel-framed city parking garage, designed by Paul Spreiregen, is a good example of a garage inside a city block and surrounded by buildings. At the Carlyle development in Alexandria, the new Patent and Trademark Office parking garages, designed by Skidmore Owings & Merrill, are hidden behind a thin layer of offices. That exemplifies the second strategy for hiding a garage. Because of security concerns, the PTO strategy is the exception at Carlyle, where all other parking garages are underground, as mandated by Carlyle design guidelines.

Most jurisdictions don't have design requirements that address basic functional necessities within parking garages: lighting, orientation and directional signs for pedestrians and vehicles, and dimensions of driving aisles and parking spaces.

Far too many parking garages are shadowy places that not only limit vision but also compromise safety. Given that energy-efficient fluorescent fixtures are inexpensive, there is no reason for parking garages not to be well-lighted.

After parking and locking your car in an underground garage, how often have you been uncertain about where to walk to find the stairway or elevator up to the lobby or street? Then, returning later to the garage -- perhaps walking cautiously down a ramp -- and backing out of your parking space, have you ever been unsure about which way to drive to reach the exit? Most parking garage signage is woefully inadequate.

Finally, who hasn't cursed the designers and builders of garages where the layout of aisles, structural columns and parking spaces seriously tests dimensional judgment, driving skills and the ability to slither out of the seat with the car door open only a few inches? Be thankful for power steering and comprehensive automobile damage insurance.

Even though they may be only "temporary," perhaps the new parking garages next to the baseball stadium will get no less design attention, inside and out, than the stadium itself. At least that would help alleviate the disappointment of an inactive streetscape, not to mention making garage navigation easier for baseball patrons.

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

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