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Sacking the Decks: How Parking Garages Got Ugly

With the 1930s, when cars no longer needed to be protected from the elements and architectural style became more austere, garages got much worse. They became more strictly functional and unbelievably ugly: squat, low, rectilinear buildings with open sides, showing cars like rows of bad teeth. All too often, especially as cars proliferated in the 1950s and '60s, garages were plunked into the urban landscape, breaking up neighborhoods, dwarfing (or supplanting) historic buildings, cutting people off from views they once took for granted.

McDonald has enough perspective to acknowledge what many people feel -- "the parking garage is a large, imposing, desolate and often stark structure," she writes -- but she loves these shaggy beasts so much that such caveats are generally lost in a rush of enthusiasm. She confessed to so many "favorite" garages during her slide show that she admitted she may seem Oprah-esque in her parade of endless affection. Some of her favorite garages -- especially the early ones -- are indeed beauties. The Dupont Garage, built in 1906 in the 2000 block of M Street NW, was a hub for the neighborhood, a nicely detailed building and by no means an oppressive structure. It has since been torn down.

McDonald's passion is not undiscriminating, but it is premised on some things that we would all be better off questioning. Garages, McDonald argues, are a necessity, essential to our fundamental American right to mobility in an urbanized world. The challenge is to build them better.

Yes, they can be built better than they have been (they can intersect with mass transit, they can be hidden underground or disguised behind better facades). But until the economics of urban land use and the demand for huge amounts of parking change, they can never really be made beautiful. They are almost always too large to be successfully hidden and, rather like funeral parlors, no matter how nice they are on the outside, you always know what's on the inside. In the case of garages, it's hundreds of little environmental disasters that burden their owners with debt, insulate them from society, frazzle them with constant cleaning and maintenance and pollute a crowded world.

If you hate garages -- for being city killers, for ruining neighborhoods, for discouraging mass transit -- there is no such thing as a good garage. McDonald, whose book is published by the Urban Land Institute (a nonprofit with members drawn from the worlds of real estate, development and urban planning), is progressively pragmatic about garages. They're here to stay, they can be better.

Or should we work toward their obsolescence and elimination (retained only for shared cars, buses, electric vehicles, etc.)? That is a trenchant, hard-nosed but ultimately more rational choice than the blithe acceptance of them as necessary evils that just need a little tweaking. Banishing the garage would force some social engineering on a population that desperately needs to wean itself from a planet-killing addiction to the automobile. When a neighborhood becomes a parking nightmare, one of two things must happen: People stop going there, or they get there on foot, bicycle, train or bus. Residents of crowded Georgetown might well consider both options entirely positive.

The parking garage is an enabler for an auto-dependent society. The anger and hostility against them that has grown up among committed urbanists is a good thing. McDonald finds beauty in her subject and has some sensible suggestions about how to improve her favorite building type. But in a better world, we would enjoy their occasional beauty with nostalgic hindsight, in books as well researched and illustrated as McDonald's, or after they've been converted to lofts or torn down altogether.

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