Surface parking lots hurt more than they help

Construction continues on Convention Center parking facility in the 1300 block of Arch Street May 11, 2012. View is looking west, toward Arch Street Methodist Church (rear). ( TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer )

Back in 1993, Philadelphia committed a radical act. It opened a new downtown convention center without a single public parking space. Despite the modest inconvenience, the city’s hospitality industry exploded. Suburbanites flocked in for the popular flower show and other special events, often choosing to take the train instead of driving.

Since then, the city’s fortunes have picked up and more cultural attractions have opened, yet the city’s resolve to limit parking has weakened. Both the Kimmel Center and the National Constitution Center included garages in their buildings, although they smartly took pains to hide them underground. But increasingly, aboveground garages are being built close to these venues, and recently a 530-car behemoth was sanctioned for next door to the Convention Center — one block from City Hall.

With the debut of the new Barnes Foundation this weekend on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Philadelphia lowers its standards another notch. To satisfy the demand for easy parking, the Barnes provides visitors with a sprawling surface lot that practically allows them to drive right up to the building’s elegant front door.

For me, the presence of a surface lot at a cultural attraction in its dense downtown represents a full-on capitulation to the siren call of the automobile by one of America’s most walkable cities. I took the Barnes to task for it when I reviewed its otherwise spectacular new home May 6, and doubt there is an urbanist out there who would defend the lot.

Judging from my e-mail in-box, however, quite a few suburban readers feel differently. I might have gotten a milder reaction if I had endorsed a member of the Taliban for president. One writer accused me of having a secret agenda to keep suburbanites out of the city.

Something tells me this issue needs more explaining.

There’s no doubt that driving is a convenient and fast way to get around. Philadelphia’s grid makes it easy to navigate, and SEPTA’s weaknesses provide a ready excuse to take the car. But if Center City tried to accommodate everyone who wanted to drive into its downtown core, it would effectively stop being a city. While driving is sometimes the only option and Center City certainly needs to provide parking — preferably in underground garages — right now 75 percent of leisure visitors from the suburbs drive to their destinations, according to the Greater Philadelphia Tourism and Marketing Corp.

At home, those drivers have little choice. The car is the only way to accomplish life’s daily tasks because destinations are so far apart. Not so in Philadelphia’s downtown. It’s the one place in the region where a car is not essential. Shops, offices, restaurants, housing, and cultural attractions are jammed together within a few blocks. The density and variety are what makes Center City so appealing. Walking is never boring. And when the distances become too great, there are always buses, trains, and taxis.

The problem with building aboveground parking for visitors is that it consumes large chunks of valuable downtown land. To make room for parking, Center City has sacrificed the very buildings, businesses, and blocks that make it attractive and interesting in the first place.

Every situation is unique, of course. The Please Touch Museum has a surface parking lot, too. But unlike the Barnes, it’s not located in the heart of the city, close to transit and existing garages. My smartphone route-finder puts the Barnes a nine-minute walk from Suburban Station, where the region’s rail and subway lines converge. Anyone preparing to spend a couple of hours poring over the Barnes’ floor-to-ceiling masterpieces should surely be able to manage the half-mile stroll along the freshly landscaped Parkway. For the handicapped and those who must drive, there are existing parking lots nearby. It should go without saying, though, that taking transit is better for the environment and better for our waistlines.

It also does more for the city’s economy. Once people park their cars, they’re less likely to sprinkle money around town. Drivers go straight to their destination, then head home when they’re done.

In contrast, visitors coming from the station may buy a coffee, admire a shop, or examine a restaurant menu. They become participants in the life of the city. The little walk may also give them confidence to explore other areas. As long as they’re ensconced behind glass partitions, the city looks like foreign ground.

Had the Barnes tucked its parking underground, it probably would have gone unremarked. But its parking lot occupies nearly a third of its small site. That land could have more productively hosted a leafy picnic grove or a sculpture garden, like the one built atop the garage at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and served as a neighborhood attraction.

Here’s another reason why stand-alone garages and surface lots are bad for a neighborhood: Nothing interesting ever happens there. Like so many surface lots, the Barnes’ replaced an occupied building, the Youth Study Center’s offices on Callowhill Street (also known as Pennsylvania Avenue). Now, no one would ever call the center a beauty, but people came and went from it all day long, adding to the sense that Callowhill Street is part of a neighborhood. Workers bought coffee across the street at Starbucks, shopped at Whole Foods, and ventured to the restaurants up the street for lunch.

I’ve heard several officials justify the Barnes’ parking lot because Callowhill is a messy hodgepodge of service retail and other parking lots. While the intersection at 20th Street does not look classically urban, stand on the corner for an hour and you’ll see it is a vibrant pedestrian hub. More important, none of those surface lots is likely to remain there very long. The Whole Foods site is owned by a developer who is clearly eager to build high-rise residences. A mid-rise apartment building is already going up on the next block. And someday the Free Library will build an addition on its lot. That will leave the Barnes’ lot as the neighborhood blight — unless the foundation reconsiders its mistake and ditches the lot.

Surface parking has always been the most wasteful form of parking, consuming the most land for the least gain. Vanity Fair’s Paul Goldberger, who gave the new Barnes a rave review, told me in a Twitter exchange that, in his three decades as an architecture critic, he has never seen a surface lot at a downtown museum, and described the one at the Barnes as “overkill.”

Drew Becher, who moved from Chicago to run the Pennsylvania Horticulture Society, said he has been surprised at the city’s “obsession” with parking. “I’ve never seen a car culture like this. I go to events and people want their cars valet-parked,” he explained. That costs nonprofit organizations like PHS money that could be better spent on programs.

Having just completed a fellowship at Harvard University, I was struck by how differently Bostonians think about driving. Parking there is much scarcer. Just about everyone, rich and poor, rides the T. Boston’s system is definitely more consumer-friendly than SEPTA — starting with the fact that they have the transit equivalent of E-ZPass — but SEPTA is still pretty good.

It’s always easy to find an excuse to take the car. Old habits are hard to change. But by leaving the car home, you ensure that there will still be a real and vibrant city next time you visit.

Contact Inga Saffron at 215-854-2213, and @ingasaffron.