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« Pic of the Day | Main | American Splendor »

September 01, 2003

Parking Lots and Downtowns

Friedrich --

A while back, Brian Micklethwait (here) and David Sucher (here) put up some memorable postings about car parks. As I recall, their main question was, Why can't car parks be more attractive? I love it when people notice overlooked things such as car parks, and even more when they go on and ask sensible questions about them. Valiantly bringing up the rear, I'm here to pitch in too.

What got me thinking my own thoughts about car parks (as well as snapping my own lousy photos of them) was a visit to Santa Barbara, one of America's prettiest small cities (and one that I've blogged about, sort of, here and here). A bit of background. 30-40 years ago, State St., the city's main downtown drag, was dreary and on the decline. Malls were drawing the easy shopping traffic away, and the town decided it was time to act. It was clear that decaying and inconvenient couldn't compete against the siren song of the shopping centers. What to do?

According to highly-placed, hush-hush sources speaking exclusively to 2Blowhards -- my in-laws, actually, who are longtime S.B. residents -- the town's strategy centered on reorganizing parking on State St. In the '60s and early '70s, cars parked on State at an angle, with their snouts facing the stores. The result was a tangle of drivers jockeying for space and an ocean of cars where you might hope to see a bit of downtown instead. The city chose to banish parking entirely from much of State St., and to construct a bunch of car parks.

But not just any ol' car parks. Nope: nice ones, and only a block or two at most off State. To illustrate, here are a few examples of typical crap American car parks. Drearily familiar -- functional, but nothing you'd want to live close to, nothing you'd care to share a block with, and nothing that you'd ever consider remembering fondly. To my mind, these car parks say, This city is losing jobs and people, and is unlikely ever to recover.

Now here are a few pix of the attractive-in-their-own-right car parks that Santa Barbara built. Nicely executed California/Spanish theme, no? Plus, what a nice addition to the neighborhood. Facing the street aren't concrete and ramps and a dumb piece of bent metal mesh pretending to be a swell design feature -- instead, there are shops, arches, and stucco. The blocks these facilities help define have their own cheery life. You're happy to be walking along them.

The city even showered some thoughtfulness on the interiors. Here's a typical American car park interior: oppressive and ugly, ready to be used as the setting for a kidnapping scene in a crime movie.

Here are some pix of S.B. car-park interiors. Amazing how a little stucco, some arches and columns, and a nicely-chosen typeface can turn help turn industrial-style gloom into friendliness.

The result of all this car park monkeying-around (and much else I'm not aware of)? A bustling, lively downtown.

Is Santa Barbara's downtown above criticism? Not at all. Has it become a bit of an outdoor theme mall? Sure. The Wife, for one, says that she finds downtown S.B. these days too hygienic; she misses the old funkiness and eccentricity, and even some of the old street people. But does the new downtown work, and is it pleasant? Sure -- all these things are true.

If you ask longtime S.B. residents how and why their downtown came back to life, it's striking how quickly they'll cite what was done with the parking.

What occurred to me as I lined these photos up is how much of what makes a town or city appealing is no big mystery, although academics and theorists will often do their best to obscure these simple facts and methods, and god knows that city councils and mayors often seem to operate in the dark. Are fabulous results guaranteed? Nope. But is a city or town's batting average certain to improve dramatically? You bet.

Overall lesson: despite our reputation as suburbia-lovin' city-avoiders, many Americans in fact clearly like the walking-around-downtown experience, and are willing to go to some (if not too much) trouble to find a downtown and have themselves a good time there, provided only that it's been made convenient, attractive and safe. Making car parks pleasant and attractive -- and, as Santa Barbara does, cheap to use -- can play a role in this. Cities hoping to score big revitalization points by investing tens of millions in a showpiece from a celeb-ritect such as Calatrava or Koolhaas might do well to give the state of their car parks some attention instead.

And who was the architect behind these Santa Barbara car parks anyway? Thousands of people benefit every day from his/her work. Funny that he/she hasn't gotten anything like the kind of adoring press a Calatrava or Koolhaas does ...

Many thanks to Brian and David for kicking this discussion off.



posted by Michael at September 1, 2003


I tend to be less concerned about how nice a parking structure looks, and more concerned about how well it works. Is it easy to get in and out? Can I find the exit? Can I find the stairs? Can it handle a large volume of traffic all at once (as when the movie ends at the cineplex) without becoming impossible? Do cars coming in interfere with cars going out?

I've been in parking structures where the path of the cars going up crosses the path of the cars going down on every single level. This is OK if only a few cars are going in and out at the same time, but doesn't handle large groups well (as I know, to my dismay).

My favorite parking structure is designed so that the traffic flows up in the eastern half and down in the western half: you can drive through the entire structure spiraling up from bottom to top on the east side and then spiraling down from top to bottom, passing every single parking spot, without ever having to cross another car's path. Plus, there are cross-links on every level from east to west and west to east so that you don't have to drive through the whole structure just to get out. It's easy, quick, and efficient, and handles heavy traffic quite nicely--at least, I've never noticed a problem.

Esthetics are important, of course, but they aren't the whole story.

Posted by: Will Duquette on September 2, 2003 08:56 PM

Yeah, but I know what Michael is getting at. I've spent some tourist time in Santa Barbara and it is darn pleasant to be able to nip into a parking garage whenever you need one. I remember from when I was living in Washington D.C. how awful it was to have to find a place to park when I went downtown on business. The car parks were infrequent and very expensive. I'd pick Santa Barbara any day of the week. As I recall, their car parks are perfectly functional as well.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on September 3, 2003 01:28 AM

See, you've just proved my point. Michael was emphasizing the esthetics of the parking structures; but the real reason they win is because they are conveniently to hand, and they work well. Making them attractive as well no doubt contributes to the tone of downtown, and perhaps may have played a role in the revitalization--but only because they were also convenient and functional.

It would be nice if that went without saying, but it doesn't.

Posted by: Will Duquette on September 3, 2003 11:13 AM

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