Saturday, March 03, 2007

Exercises in crazy pills — parking and Philadelphia

Seriously, we know it’s not normal that we have nightmares about parking garages overrunning Center City. But knowing that doesn’t really offer us much consolation. Garages give us the willies. But it’s not just garages. There are so many things about parking here that totally creep us out. In fact, the first thing we want to do when we think about the state of parking in Philadelphia, the general lack of any kind of sound, concerted urban parking strategy and the damage all this is causing (and, of course, the problem being compounded by the fact that SEPTA is borderline incompetent), is to curl up in ball on our bathroom floor, gently rocking back and forth until the Peanut Butter Fairy comes to take us off to Happy Delicious Hamburger Hot Wing Land.

But we fight the urge. Baby steps.

We are, however, left to wonder how we got here. (The middle of a parking shitstorm; not the point where our mental happy place features giant hot wings growing like trees…) And how it is possible for everyone to not realize what a tragic waste of real estate above-ground parking garages are in Center City.

It’s like the powers that be got together some time back in the 1990s, sat down and said:

“OK. So Philadelphia. Great. They've got this priceless, colonial-era, dense, eminently walkable, vibrant, thriving, totally awesome downtown. And it's got exponentially promising potential. Let’s go ahead and completely fuck it up by orienting everything in it fundamentally toward cars. And lets do it just so we can go down in history as being some of the dumbest motherfuckers to ever set foot in a city. Anywhere.

That’s right. All we need to do is design everything primarily for the automobile and you just wait, in no time, this town will be fucking dead. We’re talking absurd parking policy — or better yet — no parking policy. Laissez fucking faire man. Except not really… New, massive, above-ground parking garages on every block. A complementary surface parking lot around every corner. Ridiculously reactionary parking pricing structures that deter lucrative short-term parkers (read shoppers, diners, i.e. spenders) and encourage long-term parkers (read office workers), exactly the type of people that should be utilizing mass transit for their commute.

Also, make sure all these new behemoth garages have sidewalk-interrupting curb cuts on primary (not secondary) arterial thoroughfares to 1) further punish anyone foolish enough to try to walk and 2) fuck up and congest traffic further. Create a parking garage company CEO syndicate that becomes a major political campaign donor so elected officials fall under our control as well. Implement new zoning rules that actually spur neighborhood-ruining, garage-fronted rowhomes because they’re easier/cheaper to build than normal rowhomes — you know, ones with doors, windows and actual living space on the first floor.

Force condo developers to a) adhere to antiquated parking minimum requirements, which require them to include multiple parking spaces for every unit even though there isn’t enough demand to warrant .75 spaces per unit and then, adding insult to injury, b) not bury their condo’s parking underground (as cities like Vancouver do) where it belongs, instead encouraging them to construct their condos on top of massive, eye-sorific, 10-story parking podiums.

Deprive the city’s transit system of any legitimate funding stream and competent management so it then drives away even its most dedicated riders, forcing ever more people into cars. Figure out a way to make cars eat actual human babies and then hold public feedings in Rittenhouse Square. Oh man! It’s going to be totally fucking crazy. We are going to completely shit on this city. All in favor?” At which point, everyone in attendance raised his or her hand.

No joke. We’re pretty sure a meeting like that had to have taken place. There’s no other explanation for it. And while they didn't succeed 100% in all of their machinations, they did accomplish a lot.

More recently, back in 2003, Mayor Street, up for reelection, charged the Philadelphia Planning Commission with addressing the mess resulting from Philadelphia’s non-existent strategic parking policy, with an $100,000 comprehensive parking study. After 24-months, they came back with a report that inanely made no policy recommendations whatsoever other than to say more study/discussion was needed. Inga Saffron wrote an excellent article about the whole thing when it came out, but thanks to’s unbelievably fucking stupid practice of not giving articles permanent URLs, we cannot link to it. (Seriously, Tierns, we sincerely hope you are in the process of a complete and massive site overhaul — have you seen a little site called It’s only, like, 300 bajillion times better than your website — and that’s from a purely functional standpoint. Comparing content wouldn't be fair.)

But there is hope. To their credit, the Center City Residents Association addressed many of the important issues surrounding urban parking policy in their recently released Neighborhood Plan. They basically picked up the slack of the Planning Commision and went ahead and made a lot of the recommendations the Planning Commision’s report should have made in the first place.

Car sharing parking structureNow, those recommendations and more (like all parking garages need to be automated and located underground, except if the structure is exclusively for Philly Car Share, like this hottie designed for Zipcar, intended for dense cities like Boston, New York and DC) just need to incorporated into the new zoning code that (knock on wood) results from the planning and zoning reform coming to Philadelphia any minute now. And a new mayor to make sure it all goes down.

And no, we don't think that's asking too much.

Finally, a few quick clips from two recent Times articles. Parking as a destination:
“This is the future,” Mr. Schneeweiss said during a recent tour of the Chinatown garage, shaking his head as if he did not quite believe it yet.

But the future is coming on fast in cities like New York, where shiny towers are rising over what had long been parking lots. “There is a proliferation of high-rise condo construction in major urban areas,” said Donald R. Monahan, vice president of Walker Parking Consultants in Greenwood Village, Colo., who follows innovations in the business closely. “Usually these have small footprints that do not offer enough room for traditional garages.”

Not only are developers looking at automated garages, city planners and architects are discussing new ideas to manage automobiles, even when stationary. Urban theorists and policy makers are increasingly looking at the effects of parking on traffic, development, pollution and energy efficiency. Smart parking could save energy.
And from No Parking:
Although condominiums without parking are common in Manhattan and the downtowns of a few other East Coast cities, they are the exception to the rule in most of the country. In fact, almost all local governments require developers to provide a minimum number of parking spaces for each unit — and to fold the cost of the space into the housing price.

The exact regulations, which are intended to prevent clogged streets and provide sufficient parking, vary by city. Houston’s code requires a minimum of 1.33 parking spaces for a one-bedroom and 2 spaces for a three-bedroom. Downtown Los Angeles mandates 2.25 parking spaces per unit, regardless of size.

Today, city planners around the country are trying to change or eliminate these standards, opting to promote mass transit and find a way to lower housing costs.

Minimum parking requirements became popular in the 1950s with the growth of suburbia, said Donald Shoup, a professor of urban planning at the University of California at Los Angeles and the author of “The High Cost of Free Parking” (American Planning Association, 2005). “They spread like wildfire,” he said.

But in the 21st century, skyrocketing housing prices and the move toward high-density urban development are bringing scrutiny to the ways in which cities and developers manage the relationship between parking and residential real estate. Once a tool of government, parking requirements are increasingly driven by the market.

Last year, for example, Seattle reduced parking requirements for multifamily housing in three of the city’s major commercial corridors. Next month, the City Council will vote on a proposal to eliminate minimum parking requirements in Seattle’s six core urban districts and near light-rail stations. In June, San Francisco replaced minimum requirements downtown with maximum standards allowing no more than 0.75 parking spaces per unit. In Portland, where central city parking minimums were eliminated six years ago, developers are breaking ground on projects with restricted parking.

“In the future,” Dr. Shoup said, “we will look back at minimum parking requirements as a colossal mistake. Change will be slow, but it's happening now.”

15th and Chestnut is no place for even more traffic [Philadelphia Inquirer]
When all else fails, build a garage [Changing Skyline]
Transit cuts, parking boom — no way for Philadelphia to go [Philadelphia Inquirer]
The Center City parking debate that wasn’t [Changing Skyline]
The Asphalt Jungle [Philadelphia City Paper]
Center City Residents Association Neighborhood Plan [Official Site, PDF]
Parking as a Destination [New York Times]
No Parking: Condos leave out cars [New York Times]

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