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Philadelphia worries about boom in garages


PHILADELPHIA - If the 1980s were the skyscraper decade and the '90s the hotel decade, the naughts promise to be the garage decade in Philadelphia.

While big commercial projects such as DisneyQuest have fizzled, construction of parking garages in Center City and beyond is continuing at a rapid clip. In the last few months, two multilevel decks and one surface lot have opened. Four more garages are being built, and at least three others are in development.

The surprisingly rapid proliferation of multistory garages has caught the attention of a variety of civic and government groups. Many are worried that these large structures could overwhelm Philadelphia's narrow, Colonial-era streets, detracting from the charm of the city's modest rowhouse neighborhoods.

Because of these fears, the City Planning Commission, the Center City District and the Foundation for Architecture are studying the issue of parking in downtown Philadelphia.

The foundation is going a step further. Its staff is about to present its findings in slide-show form to dozens of community groups throughout the city in an effort to encourage public discussion.

Debate percolating

The debate is already percolating in Center City, where most of the garages are going up. In February, Center City's 10 neighborhood associations formed an ad hoc group to monitor the effect of the garage boom on the quality of life in their areas. The group wants to develop a common strategy for dealing with garage proposals.

At the moment, there are 53,000 off-street parking spaces in Center City, but that number could grow by 2,000 or 3,000 if all the planned garages are built. More important than the number of spaces is the amount of land the new garages occupy, displacing buildings that could hold people. The increased demand for parking in Center City is partly a function of its growing popularity as a place to live and work.

While these city and neighborhood groups each hold different views about how many garages are needed downtown, all agree that Philadelphia needs to develop a coherent approach to parking.

"We want Philadelphia to have a bona fide and civic-minded parking philosophy," explained Alan Greenberger, an architect with MGA Partners who helped prepare the Foundation for Architecture's parking study. "The city doesn't have that kind of philosophy right now. If someone wants to build a garage, it's OK. And if they need a tax break to build it, that's OK, too."

In particular, Center City neighborhoods feel that they are forced to accept the lion's share of the garages, said Louis Coffey, who organized the neighborhood parking forum. They believe that parking decks are being built largely to satisfy suburban visitors and commuters, who are accustomed to parking next to their destination, rather than several blocks away.

But too many garages, Coffey warned, could damage the charming neighborhoods that drew these visitors in the first place. "People don't come to Center City to park. They come to live and work," he said. "Yes, parking plays a supporting role. But that role has to be guided by what we want the city to be. The city needs to have a vision."

What that vision will be is hard to say, because each group studying the parking issue has different interests. For the residents' groups, the key issue is preserving the character of neighborhoods.

While the planning commission is also concerned about those neighborhoods, it also wants to ensure that Center City has the right amount of parking to support business growth. The Center City District, meanwhile, is mainly interested in seeing parking rates structured to favor shoppers and visitors, rather than commuters.

The Foundation for Architecture, which usually concerns itself with the finer buildings in Philadelphia, has taken a different approach entirely: It wants to stamp out ugly garages.

In pursuit of a more perfect garage, it has been trying to come up with design standards. It recently sent Greenberger and staff member Janet Potter onto the streets of downtown Philadelphia to catalog the city's garages and rate them for their appearance and impact on the urban landscape.

The news from the street is not good, the two say. The majority of multistory garages built over the last three decades in Center City, they say, are hulking Godzillas that loom over everything around them and gobble up prime street corners with gaping, open decks.

In all of downtown, Potter and Greenberger said they identified only a single garage that they felt could serve as a model for the parking industry, located at the southwest corner of 20th and Walnut streets. The quality they liked best about it is that it doesn't look like a garage. Instead of open decks, it has a full facade that is sympathetic to the buildings around it.

Potter and Greenberger, who will be presenting their findings at community meetings, are advocating several basic rules for good garage design:

Large garages should be built only as an accessory to another development, such as an office or residential tower.

Garages should be built underground.

If free-standing garages are built, they should be small enough to blend discreetly into Philadelphia's streets.

Many small garages are preferable to a few behemoths.

All garages should be camouflaged by a full facade.

No street should be designated as a "parking ghetto."

Although city planners would agree with most of these recommendations, they differ with the foundation's preference for many small garages, said Debbie Schaaf, the city planner who is overseeing the commission's parking study.

"A lot of small garages mean a lot of driveways," which interrupt pedestrians, Schaaf said. She would prefer to see a few large garages on the fringes of Center City that would "intercept" cars before they reach downtown.

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