Opposite Ends of I-90 Vol. 2: Parking Garage Edition

Usually they’re contemptible scars on the urban fabric, like the eye-popping piece of work in the photo above at 2nd and Union in Seattle.  But they don’t have to be.  The garage shown below is in Boston’s Beacon Hill neighborhood, and isn’t it the most adorable thing?

Here’s another in Boston’s downtown office core:

Excited yet?  Yes, it’s lipstick on a pig, but unlike so many garages in downtown Seattle, at least it isn’t a total F.U. to the  city.

Boston, like every U.S. city, also has it’s share of heinous parking garages.  But in Seattle, downtown looks as if the City sponsored an ongoing heinous parking garage design competition back in the 1970s.  It’s remarkable that there wasn’t more uproar over how soul-crushing these structures are; or if objections were raised, how they were so easily ignored by those who stood to profit.

Blame it on “Wild West” mentality.  Compared to Seattle, Boston has far more deeply-rooted architectural and urbanist traditions that helped put a check on the  infatuation with “progress” and the city-gutting march of the cult of the automobile (though of course not all battles were won).  It’s the real kind of conservatism:  the past and its connection to the present is valued—an essential balancing force in the development of any healthy culture.

But the West has always been more dominated by the laissez-faire mindset.  Seattle’s historic midrise brick buildings were like swaths of old growth Douglas fir prime for exploitation, and the garages that were left in their place are about as beneficial to a true city as a wasteland of clearcut stumps is to a forest ecosystem.

Today we are still building hulking parking garages, but we usually try to do a better job with the lipstick—we put green roofs on them, for example, and even award them green building certification. And while these are positive steps, they don’t negate the fact that in terms of sustainable urbanism, parking garages are rotten at the core.  Sacrificing our precious urban land and economic resources to buildings with the sole purpose of part-time car storage degrades the pedestrian realm,  reinforces car-dependence,  and ultimately moves the city in the wrong direction.

The simple solution:  ban above-grade parking structures.  And then start incentivizing redevelopment of the mess of city-soul-sucking abominations that are already on the ground.

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[ This post is part of a series on Boston and Seattle that will be continued as long as no commenters are really mean. ]

19 Responses to “Opposite Ends of I-90 Vol. 2: Parking Garage Edition”

  1. Matt the Engineer

    I’m starting to feel like the easiest way to make a block walkable is to add storefronts.

    Here’s my proposal for an interesting code requirement in a dense walkable city: force all new construction to have a storefront, residential lobby, or office lobby at least every 50 feet on all sides except the alley side. Car entrances are only allowed on the alley side.

  2. jmland

    The simple solution is not always the best solution. Banning above grade parking garages and/or limiting car entrances to garages to alleys sides are absolute prohibitions that ignore the special circumstances of each unique property. Such heavy handed zoning requirements will often kill projects before they hit the drawing boards. I can think of three such projects where we struggled to get below grade parking garages to work with alley entrances, but because of site constraints, were forced to compromise one way or the other in order to get it to work, and to make the project feasible from a development standpoint.

    I am all for encouraging and incentivizing smart design (i.e. *my* smart design sense, not some other schmucks smart design dense, mind you), but there needs to be some leeway in special circumstances where the code might otherwise stifle or kill a project.

    The two Boston examples above provide an excellent testimony about how even above ground parking garages with street frontage entrances can be part of a walkable city AND be easy on the eye. So what needs to change is either the “profit first, aesthetics who cares” attitude of some developers/project owners (yeah, good luck with that), or a concerted effort on the part of DPD to develop and enforce meaningful design standards that place priority number one on Joe Pedestrian.

  3. Joshua Daniel Franklin

    Isn’t there some retail requirement in downtown Seattle? It may also protect against socially isolating “towers in the park” syndrome.

    Also hard to say about cars in alleys, which are a mostly untapped resource for publicly owned open space with very little traffic. I’d like to see the greening and pedestrianizing of Seattle alleys. But I don’t want curb cuts either. Hey, how about a parking garage with no street access at all?

  4. MJH

    Portland’s Smart Park garages provide some other great examples of successfully integrating parking garages into the streetscape – all are wrapped with storefronts. All also have very accessible pedestrian entrances. Portland has done a great job at 1)capping the amount of parking in the Downtown area, 2) making it possible for a person to park once and easily get around the Downtown without a car. I was impressed with how parking sort of just fades to the background there.

    @3 Not all alleys would make happy, pedestrianized, green spaces. In fact, very few in Downtown Seattle would. Alleys serve a very utilitarian purpose by providing spaces for trash storage and pick-up, delivery, and where possible garage access. These things should happen in the alley, not within a pedestrian-oriented streetscape.

    Also, the parking garage Dan shows above was built before the City’s ground-floor retail requirements. A parking garage built today would look quite a bit different. But it would still be a parking garage. The City still needs to work on limiting the size of garage entrances.

    The garage at 3rd and Pine (across from Macy’s) is a great example of retail retrofit that activates the streetscape and adds visual interest, resulting the the garage itself becoming less visually prominent.

  5. publicadministrator

    Actually as a pedestrian I prefer the long sight distance view of a motorist preparing to cross the sidewalk to make a turn in/out of a garage entrance from the street. He seems me, I see him and everybody’s happy.

    Sometimes there’s an angled mirrors and audible warnings. At a few garages take the extra step during rush hour to post cops to direct traffic.

    To redirect (more) vehicle traffic to an alley seems like a dumb idea. The interface of alley and sidewalk is often has a blocked view for motorists and pedestrians alike which is more hazardous than what we have now.

    Besides aren’t most alleys one and half lanes wide downtown? Increasing cars in the alley could be problematic with oncoming traffic, and changing them to one way is also nusiance. …and can we rely on drivers to avoid driving over plastic garbage bags now that we’ve eliminated dumpsters?

  6. Matt the Engineer

    I’d buy those arguments [public].

    Branching off from [Josh]’s alley idea, it would be interesting to have a city that’s flipped the use of main streets and alleys. Put all of the cars, garbage, garage enterances, and utilities on the street side. Put all of the storefronts on the alley side and on cross streets. The result would be a fairly pedestrian-friendly city. You’d still have to cross the street every block, but you wouldn’t have to interact with traffic between blocks.

  7. jmland

    Matt: I’d prefer to see it the other way. Put all the cars, garbage, garage entrances and utilities in the alley; put all the storefronts on the streets and open them completely up to pedestrians. The result would be an *extremely* pedestrian-friendly city. You’d still have to cross the alley at mid-block, but you wouldn’t have to interact with traffic at the streets or street corners!

    Impractical, I know, but I can dream too.

  8. MJH

    @6 the image of pedestrian life occuring in dark, damp, narrow alleys brings to mind a medieval city, however, without the charming twists and turns that make those places special and interesting…

    better to focus on humanizing streets through better development standards and deemphasizing the auto…

  9. Bill B

    I thought we all loved Copenhagen. Why are we talking about building more parking downtown? Downtown parking will in the future be the domain of the wealthy and the elite, right? Just like roads, if we build more capacity, it will be used.

    Cars, bad. Mass transit, good. Underground parking, good. Underground roads, bad. ???

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