Thanks a Lot!

With creative planning, unsightly parking spaces can become buzzing public places.

While drivers ponder trips to downtown Anywhere, one question haunts them: “Where can I park?” A city’s visual freshness suffers when that question gets too easy. Garages never dignify the skyline and parking lots are deadly. If cars mow down urban spontaneity, parking lots bury it. But looking at parking lots as opportunities for architectural innovation can bring more thrilling designs to life.

Alan Suna, CEO of New York film-production company Silvercup Studios, works on the Queens waterfront near a bridge that funnels thousands of cars into and out of Manhattan each day. He says his company’s plan for a mixed-use complex achieves “a model for what will happen in New York City in the next century.” The design, with Richard Rogers Partnership at the helm, includes an office tower, retail and cultural spaces, plus a catering hall and its film operations. But all the visitors’ parking to this complex will be located underground—this includes loading docks, onramps, and space for 1,400 cars. Suna’s long-term plan is to offer services, from weddings to movie-going, that this part of Queens has failed to support despite a huge population and a five-minute subway ride to Manhattan. He also hopes to lure walk-to-work types to the complex’s 1,000 apartments. Those plans would stall if driving becomes a hassle. But they’d sag if streetscapes become parked-car promenades.

Suna is a moviemaker and ex-architect, so his language about creating a “model” might smack of impresario hype. But any plan that creates streetscape, rather than parking lots, can also create economic development. When pedestrians flock to a burgeoning neighborhood on weekend nights to sample the newest in nightlife, they may eventually decide to live there. When that happens, parking lot owners lose interest in parking. Doug Sarini, an executive with New Jersey-based Edison Properties, says his company has spent decades buying parking lots in Manhattan in order to pounce when the land becomes more valuable for apartments. Now he’s hired Costas Kondylis and Robert A.M. Stern to design high-rises on sites that Edison held as parking lots while housing sprouted all around. “New Yorkers spend more time outdoors these days,” Sarini says. When the local streets enchant, parking lots become flowerbeds for new buildings.

If a city economy can support a range of pedestrian activities, motivated shoppers will pay to park. According to the Victoria Transport Policy Institute, only land prices of $1 million per acre or higher make parking garages generally profitable. So cities may opt for alternate measures. Vancouver requires drivers to pay a per-parking space tax at downtown retailers and similar businesses—these taxes will finance mass transit improvements. While it may annoy some professionals and merchants, it pressures commuters to decide what the drive into town is worth.

VENTURING OUT: There are as many ways to deal with car volume as there are to parallel park. London won lots of hosannas for introducing a daily “congestion charge” on drivers entering the central district. Mexico City and Rome also tried to cap driving with mixed results. In the USA, some pedestrian malls fizzled so fantastically that city officials reopened them to cars. And some parking facilities, like Boston’s Post Office Square, have added more character to downtowns with handsome landscaping.

SPEAKING OUT: How does parking affect your sentiments about your town? Atlanta, Seattle and Boston all fuse burgeoning nightlife districts with frustrating parking. If you know a supremely annoying or ingenious parking arrangement, send it here. And if you know how to tame parking’s effect on your street but haven’t gotten your forum, speak up. Whoever sends the cleverest idea wins an iPod playlist courtesy of External Affairs.

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