Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Design for What? Third of Three Parts

A ten-story parking garage at 15th and Chestnut Streets in Center City (downtown) Philadelphia, as proposed by one condominium developer, is quite rightly controversial. Opponents argue that it would add more traffic to an already-congested corner and encourage people to drive to and around Center City, which in turn would generate more greenhouse gases and increase fuel consumption. On the other hand, supporters of the project argue, the city needs more parking to attract visitors from the suburbs who will not take public transit or walk long distances to get to events on the Avenue of the Arts (Broad Street), which is just around the corner from the proposed garage, or to Center City restaurants and other attractions. And the city needs the suburban visitors.

This is not an easy balance to strike. The city does need the visitors. But the city also needs to survive and thrive in an era when travel by private car will become more expensive and difficult than it is today—and when climate change will almost certainly force us to restrict our use of private cars. Market pressures and legal requirements make the situation even more problematic. In the short term, plenty of parking is a marketing plus; in the long term, easy access to public transit may be a selling point. And in the short term, city ordnances require off-street parking for large residential building projects. (The parking garage project began as a condominium project that could not generate funding—hence the inclusion of off-street parking in the original plan.)

Whatever city ordnances and market pressures may dictate, however, lack of parking is not the problem that the "more-parking-is-better" mantra makes it appear to be. A quick search of Center City using Google Maps shows that there are already at least 531 parking facilities in Center City. Some of them, including the parking lot that is currently at 15th and Chestnut, are surface facilities that eat up space and destroy the cityscape. Most are multi-story buildings, some with retail on the ground floor, others with nothing at street level but a blank wall. At 15th and Spruce Streets, just three blocks south of the proposed garage, there is an extraordinary structure half a city block square that consists of a large tavern with ten stories of parking on top—making it possible to drink and drive in one convenient stop.

If parking is not the problem in Center City, what is? The simplest answer is also the truest: jobs. The population of Center City is growing; the economic base is not. And a parking garage at 15th and Chestnut Streets will not reverse this trend. Even with retail stores on the ground floor, it will house fewer jobs than the building that occupied this space before a major fire destroyed it in the 1980s. The good of the city would be better served by commercial development on this site—ideally, retail on the ground floor, with no more than 10-12 stories of offices above it to fit in with the rest of the Chestnut Street corridor. The problem is attracting the jobs.

Philadelphia, it must be said, provides a difficult environment for business because of its eccentric tax structure and bewildering bureaucracy. In the long run, however, merely ending these barriers will do less for the city than a good development plan that balances commercial, residential, and transportation projects to maintain a vibrant, walkable center that people can reach without resorting to their cars.

Philadelphia is not the only city that needs planning like this. In the future that is coming, public transit will become more important. Walkable business districts will become vital. And living closer together in viable neighborhoods will be a necessity. We could choose not to move in these directions: to build more and more parking lots and big-box stores, let our public transit fall to pieces, and ravage our cities in the name of storing millions of private cars. If we do, the odds are against our having a long-term future at all. But we will have plenty of parking.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Design for What? Second of Three Parts

The problem with designing a building is that it is a lasting monument. If it is beautiful, works with its surroundings, and moves us toward a better future, we will enjoy it for a long time, and it will help us to live better. If it is mediocre, ignores or destroys its surroundings, and lessens the prospect of a better future, we may tolerate it, but we will not love it—and in the end, when it has outlived its usefulness, we will have the problem of what to do with it.

All over the United States there are buildings like the big box store in the photo, the shopping mall outside of town that has effectively destroyed the central business district, and the office park that might once have been located in the city center. All are surrounded by acres of parking lots which damage water runoff, speed climate change (both by encouraging more cars and more driving, and by paving over farmland and green areas), and create traffic congestion. But in the suburbs, where most big boxes and office parks are located, parking, however ugly and destructive, has up to now been a sine qua non—an absolute necessity because shoppers and workers must drive their cars to reach the big box that is their destination. They have no alternative.

Older cities like Philadelphia provide alternatives to the private car. Public transit in Philadelphia is inadequately funded, does not run frequently enough, and follows routes that are often based on a city that once was, not the city that exists—but it is there, and it is quite possible to live in the city without a car at all. The difficulty for city planners is that the city needs to attract suburbanites for shopping, events, and jobs if it is to thrive. And suburbanites are not only in the habit of driving everywhere, they actually fear the city (any city, not just Philadelphia) at night. Or at least they fear the process of getting to and from downtown, or find it inconvenient,

In fact, it is inconvenient to drive from the suburbs to downtown, not because of parking but because of traffic. The local news in every city in the United States, not just Philadelphia, has regular reports on traffic jams—a daily crisis that everyone regards as normal even though it plainly is not. Hearing these reports, I regularly wonder why people subject themselves to the torture of driving to the city. The train is leisurely, comfortable, and quiet. It seems expensive, but compared with driving it is not. But there are few trains, they run at awkward times, and they stop running too early. Hence the choice of the slow, unpleasant, noisy, expensive drive to town.

Which brings us back to the proposed parking garage at one of the busiest intersections in downtown Philadelphia. From an environmental and social point of view, a ten-story parking garage like the one proposed is hard to justify. Less diplomatically, it is a disaster. It uses precious city space that could house offices or residents to house cars. It encourages driving to the city, and its location will inevitably increase traffic congestion.

That is the case against the proposal. The case for it is that the city "needs more parking" if it is to attract business from the suburbs. The real question, however, is whether, in the long run, the city will need more parking or better and more efficient access to its events and services. More and more parking seems important for the next five or ten years. But during those years, the price of fuel will go up, the supply will almost certainly go down, and the need to discourage driving (because of climate change) will become even more apparent than it is now. In the long run, the suburbs themselves will have to change or face ruin as the sheer cost of living in them and supplying them grows beyond what those who live there can sustain.

Given a long term in which suburbs become less viable (unless they also change), should city planners approve parking whose importance will probably diminish after five or ten years? And in any case, is a parking garage on one of the most important parcels of city land a good choice? More on this in the third posting of this series.