Parking-garage glut sucks the life out of the city

September 29, 2006|By Klaus Philipsen

Jane Jacobs, author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities, spent decades dispelling the notion that cities should be designed around cars; instead, she promoted the city as a people place.

Baltimore still needs to catch on. A few years ago, the quasi-public Baltimore Development Corp. (BDC) was given the task of fixing what had been identified as downtown Baltimore's biggest woe: the "parking gap." It attacked this problem with single-minded zeal.

Since then, in the downtown area, parking spaces have been sprouting far more frequently than coffee shops - tens of thousands of them. One of the latest examples is a 700-car garage occupying Pier Six at the Inner Harbor. City officials have privately acknowledged that this garage is both a planning folly and a real estate bungle.

You might think that after a garage with a water view, another terminating the view of one of Baltimore's great boulevards (the Little Italy garage at the corner of Pratt and President streets) and one cheek-to-jowl with the Baroque revival-style City Hall, we would have learned that parking garages kill historic buildings and deaden urban space. Think again. Along comes what might just be the greatest garage debacle of all: a full-block garage envisioned at the southern downtown gateway of Charles and Lombard streets - a BDC project halfway through the design review process.

Why is a garage in this location so bad? For one thing, it ruins the Charles Street gateway. Everybody wants to get the millions of tourists who cling to the water's edge at the Inner Harbor to visit downtown and spread their dollars around to businesses a bit removed from Harborplace. The preferred northward coordinate to do so is Charles Street, our premier downtown street. To place an enormous parking garage at this all-important gateway to downtown would be like symbolically turning the city's back to visitors, aggressively discouraging pedestrians who might make the brave attempt to walk up Charles Street from the water's edge.

Also, it would wipe out smaller, older buildings. People who see downtown Baltimore often observe that much of our architecture is beautiful. One could argue about the historic value of the buildings that have to come down for the garage, but they certainly are part of a sliver of old Baltimore sitting quaintly in front of the towers of urban renewal. A large above-ground garage is certainly no better alternative, no matter how artfully the facade is done. Crossing driveways and listening to the cars mounting the ramps have never been an attraction for pedestrians.

There are many garages nearby - in fact, all of Lombard Street appears to be garages and service gates.

Moreover, the garage will be fully exposed. "Good" structured parking is underground like at the Gallery Building or wrapped like the new garage on Caroline Street, which is faced with townhouses.

Visitors who swoon over our architecture often observe that there are not many people in the streets and few stores. People don't walk downtown because for too long, the priority has been the car. Every new garage cements this misguided policy further and will make it harder to walk, because more cars will be drawn to downtown, clogging the streets and polluting the air.

Twelve thousand parking spaces within three blocks of the Inner Harbor are enough, especially if they were managed through a smart parking system guiding drivers to available spaces. It is time for Baltimore to say goodbye to this massive use of public money for garages and fund better transit instead. The most visited parts of our city (aside from the Inner Harbor) are those where the car-friendly plans were defeated (as in Fells Point) and the historic buildings remained. Some of the most visited cities in America (New York, San Francisco, Boston) are those that have lively streets, are easy to walk and have good transit.

Businesses need to stop blackmailing the city ("build us parking or we will leave"). Downtown can remain an attractive business location only if it is well planned and attractive to everyone - a people place, as envisioned by Jane Jacobs. That means no more parking garages in prime locations.

Klaus Philipsen is co-chairman of the Urban Design Committee of the American Institute of Architects' Baltimore chapter. His e-mail is Contributing to this article were Gilbert Thomas, co-chairman of the Urban Design Committee, and Mahendra Parekh, AIA Baltimore president.

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