A building problem

April 30, 2004|By Gordon T. Ingerson

THERE IS NO one event in Baltimore that can provoke more ire within the design and planning community than the construction of a new parking garage. This is for good reason; a city should be designed for living in - for people - not cars. There are too many parking garages in Baltimore, and they are usually in the wrong places.

This conviction has sometimes been interpreted as a general hatred of all parking garages everywhere. The parking issue has been dealt with as an isolated series of building projects instead of as a systemic issue that needs a systematic solution.

The intersection of Lombard and Calvert streets, for example, has three garages. A fourth is planned on the northeast corner, behind the Brookshire hotel. This is hardly an example of good urban or traffic planning.

There never has been a comprehensive approach to this issue in Baltimore that takes into account traffic flows into and out of the city, pedestrian movements and population densities, alternative transportation systems and other critical questions.

But the parking garage problem is only a symptom of a bigger one. There can never be enough parking in a healthy city, any more than there can be a highway with enough lanes. If an area is desirable, people will seek more access, at the risk of destroying the very qualities that made it popular.

If a city has enough parking, that means there is a balance between demand and supply, which is achieved through a decrease in demand as much as by an increase in supply. As the parking becomes more dominant, the area becomes less attractive - a dangerous balance that can easily tip into an irrecoverable reduction in demand.

There are cities that essentially are built of parking garages, such as Charleston, W.Va. - a demonstration of the "If you build it, they will come" theory. There are indeed many garages in Charleston, but the tourists did not come after all.

On a larger scale, regions such as Northern Virginia are strangling on highways and sprawling development patterns; many companies and residents are thinking twice about locating there because of travel times of two and three hours.

Mass transit can never provide enough access, either. Transit can provide an alternative transportation system in ways that will not destroy a city's livability. Without it, livable urban qualities will lose out to the requirements of the car. Maryland's state government has lost sight of this in its current transportation proposals: An additional toll lane for the Baltimore Beltway or an Intercounty Connector would only encourage more sprawl.

Maryland has a history of civilized planning and a denser development pattern that could both be used to advantage by a regional transportation system. We could be more like successful cities: Boston; Portland, Ore.; Denver; even Philadelphia or Washington.

The major economic engine of a region now is its livability. Businesses in the modern economy choose locations with concentrations of skilled and educated employees, and their employees locate where they can find a pleasant living environment. If you doubt this, consider the regions of the country that are major economic engines and the reasons for their success.

Baltimore already has many of the advantages that other areas are trying to invent, if we do not destroy them because of old ideas that have been discredited everywhere else. We have a superb collection of buildings, public spaces and neighborhoods, some of the best in the world, but we still don't seem to appreciate them.

That others can see their value is evidenced by the areas of Baltimore that are beginning to flourish such as Canton, Fells Point, Federal Hill, the west side, Locust Point, Butchers Hill/ Patterson Park and Hampden.

The future of Baltimore will be shaped in the next few years. Cranky comments after a structure is up or a building is demolished, although satisfying, do not accomplish much. Do we want to be here 10 years from now looking up at the equivalent of the earlier disastrous proposal for a superhighway over Fort McHenry, having done nothing to stop it?

The previous generation stepped up to the plate and left a lasting legacy for us to enjoy. What will we leave for those that follow?

Gordon T. Ingerson is president of the Baltimore chapter of the American Institute of Architects.

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