Ahh, the holidays, a great time to catch up on our reading. Little did I know that a story I casually picked up one evening would ruin the rest of my vacation. As I read “Between the Lines,” a story by Dave Gardetta in Los Angeles Magazine on the state of LA parking, I had to keep putting my phone down to quell the panic attacks originating in my chest. We have HOW many parking spaces in downtown? And they’re vacant HOW much of the time?. Just to finish the piece I had to drink a half a bottle of wine.
For all Gardetta’s awesomeness in writing this piece—you can read a disheartening breakdown of all the numbers over at Curbed LA—I actually wish it was longer. He explains plenty about the economics of parking via the philosophy of the great Donald Shoup—basically, we need to charge more for parking at peak times, which is actually being done downtown through a program called ExpressPark—but he doesn’t talk much about the infrastructural elements of parking. I agree that we don’t need more parking. But how do we improve the way that parking looks and acts in our communities—the lots, the spots, the garages?
Which has had me thinking ever since: What is good parking? Is there any such thing?
Gardetta mentions the country’s first LEED-certified parking garage (above), which is in Santa Monica and was designed by Moore Ruble Yudell. My friend Marissa included it in her story about the five best-looking parking garages in LA. While it certainly adds some flavor to the visual language of the street, and has non-car amenities like bike parking, and is way prettier than a blistered expanse of asphalt, would this really count as good parking? I mean, they still had to build a separate five-story building, right?
On DnA a few months back we covered automated parking garages, which use robotic arms to stack cars into underground lots. The argument for these is that they take up less space and can park cars more efficiently, far underground where you never have to see them. But I shudder when I think about the energy expended by these machines just so these robot valets can shuffle cars around like toys. And in essence, it’s enabling more cars to be parked per building, which is kind of the opposite of what we want. I guess it’s nicer to have our cars tucked out of the way, into cute little robot stalls or LEED-certified corners bathed in natural light. But can this really be better parking?
So that leaves us to the other option, the traditional concrete lot, which I suppose is “low-impact” in the sense that you’re hopefully using underdeveloped land, and you don’t have to build a garage or program a subterranean robot brain. But come on, they’re just awful. Of course we’ve seen lots of lots that try a little harder on the greenscape side of things, with permeable materials that allow water to filter through and some scrawny trees for shade. We’ve seen change on a very micro scale, like how places like San Francisco have converted parking spaces in to actual parks. But your average parking lot is still a parking lot. All the time.
The real place to make a difference, I would say, is in the way we use parking lots. So much of LA’s downtown, where awesome, high-density stuff could be/once was is now dominated by parking lots. (Ugh! Chest pains just thinking about the number. Need wine.) But they’re not even parking cars all the time, it’s more about the idea of parking cars. The best example of this are the acres and acres of parking lots that have flattened the land around Staples Center and the Convention Center in anticipation of games and other events. They sit empty a majority of the time. And a big sticking point about building the new football stadium down there is that they’d have to add even more parking (in part, so people could tailgate).
All week I was disheartened by this prospect until I was reminded of an example of maybe-a-little-bit-better parking—by last weekend’s Rose Bowl. If you’ve ever been to a game at the Rose Bowl, you probably tailgated in one of the most beautiful parking lots in the country. That’s because it’s not really a parking lot: You’re browning your wieners and chugging your Bud Lights on the fairways of the Brookside Golf Club.
(Since there’s no way I’m showing another school’s tailgate, I’m using this similar example of a tailgate at my school, the University of Colorado at Boulder. And yes, that is my friend’s ambulance transformed into an emergency tailgating vehicle.)
Why can’t there be a golf course downtown that doubles as an as-needed parking lot? Okay, it doesn’t have to be a golf course—it could be picnic areas and playing fields for downtown’s park-starved residents. When there are big events happening in downtown, the fields will fill with cars—but those big events like basketball games and concerts usually happen at night. The rest of the time it would be public space, maintained by the same companies who charge people (a lot) to park there. When the new football stadium comes in, there will be plenty of space to tailgate, turning downtown into one big park where people can still run, play, relax.
Is this a better solution? I have no idea. Maintaining acres of grass in drought-friendly LA may not be the smartest use of our limited resources. And maybe with too many cars driving over them, my “parking fields” might not hold up as well as I think. But as I walked through downtown the other day, I imagined how awesome it would be to look out across the wide expanses of cement and see just one continuous square of cool, inviting green. I don’t even think a car parked on it, some of the time, would ruin that view.
Update: This week, Michael Kimmelman’s column is entitled “Taking Parking Lots Seriously, As Public Space,” and has some great examples in the slideshow of a-little-better parking lots. I liked this line: “But cars aren’t going away anytime soon, certainly not in the suburbs or in cities like Los Angeles, and we can’t just wish away lots in which to park them. John Brinckerhoff Jackson, the landscape writer who died in 1996, years ago pleaded that the parking lot be treated like the city common, with its own community values.”