Updated: Friday, June 7, 2013, 3:01 AM
As regular readers of this column know, I consider parking garages the lowest form of downtown development. The uninhabited structures suck the life out of their surroundings and encourage people to choose cars over transit for trips into Center City. But if there is one thing worse than a free-standing downtown garage, it is a blighted free-standing downtown garage.
Center City, unfortunately, is riddled with such eyesores, especially in the retail corridor east of City Hall, between Arch and Walnut Streets. Many were built in the '50s and '60s, when parking was hailed as a cure for declining shopping districts, but now these blighted garages are bringing down the neighborhood themselves. Some of the worst offenders are operated by - wouldn't you know it - the Philadelphia Parking Authority, the agency that should be setting the standard.
The public authority is regularly lambasted for its zealous ticketing for parking infractions, so you would think it would be equally zealous in maintaining its property. But as director Vince Fenerty acknowledges, it's been guilty of violations of its own. The agency, which operates six aboveground and two underground garages in Center City, is now on a mission to clean up its act.
The first demonstration of its new resolve will be the highly visible garage at Eighth and Filbert Streets, behind the former Strawbridge & Clothier and Lit Bros. department stores. Spanning Eighth Street like a modern-day feudal portal, it was billed as a "gateway" to Philadelphia after it opened in 1963.
Today it resembles a prison entrance. Pedestrians noticeably pick up the pace in the dingy underpass. Every storefront is vacant, ominous puddles ooze onto the sidewalk, and the concrete is chipped and stained. Managed for most of its existence by Strawbridge's, and then Macy's, the garage reverted to the authority's control two years ago. The vast majority of its 1,222 spaces are now occupied not by shoppers, but by commuters who take advantage of the authority's cut-rate pricing.
To demonstrate its new civic spirit, the authority decided against putting together an in-house repair plan and instead hired a respectable design team (O'Donnell & Naccarato, Wallace Roberts & Todd) and consulted with select community representatives. The outreach paid off.
The result is a plan that isn't just about making the parking stalls nicer, patching holes, and fixing leaks. If carried out as the design team proposes, the interventions could actually mitigate the garage's deadening effect on the pedestrian zone between the Reading Terminal and Independence Mall.
Borrowing the latest thinking about urban placemaking, the plan includes the kind of ideas pioneered in Philadelphia at pop-up parks like the Porch, next to 30th Street Station. Imagine, if you can, farmer's markets and concerts under the gloomy Eighth Street tunnel.
It's not as far-fetched as it sounds. In both its mission and its aesthetics, the design is all about deemphasizing traditional garage elements and making us see this familiar structure in a new way.
The designers start by draping veils of metal mesh and glass over the garage's no-frills stack of concrete decks. Their proposal calls for screening the long north side with glass louvers that are like enormous venetian blinds. The glass bands would be lightly colored. During the day, they would shimmer and sparkle in the sun; at night, they would reflect the garage's interior lights.
Because of the way the garage is wedged into the site, you get only a small glimpse of the south facade by looking down Eighth Street. It is not a pretty sight. Here the designers would camouflage the decks with a folded scrim of metal mesh - the same product used to screen the upper floors of SANAA's celebrated New Museum in Manhattan. The origamilike folds would be broken up with strips of vertical greenery. There are other green features, including electric-car chargers and rain cisterns.
The screens won't make the decks disappear, but the hope is that the sparkle of the materials will make people forget they're there.
The most appealing part of the plan is the concept for the underpass. The authority says it wants to turn the tenebrous passage into an urban "room." Though the renderings are probably too nice to be believed, they show an appealing public space glowing with tiny lights overhead and paved in a wall-to-wall masonry carpet, to accommodate the farmer's market and cultural events.
Of course, the stores are all filled with nice retailers; there has even been talk of a "bicycle hotel," offering repairs, storage, and, even showering facilities. If only!
Given the struggles on nearby Market Street, it may be a challenge for the authority to find quality retailers. The authority has hired a retail consultant to help find the right mix. Meanwhile, the owners of the Gallery also are working on upgrading that mall with better retail. Fenerty insisted during an interview there would be no check-cashing and no dollar stores in the Eighth Street garage.
A good thing, too. The dispiriting condition of the retail on the nearby 10th Street garage - which includes a row of vacant stores facing Chestnut Street - is a big contributor to the black hole in pedestrian continuity on Chestnut. After renovating the Eighth Street garage, Fenerty promises 10th Street will be next.
These garages were built at a time when the city believed parking would encourage suburbanites to shop downtown. That never happened, but something better did: In the last two decades, the streets around the two garages have been populated with new city residents. Now the Parking Authority's job is no longer just about housing cars; it must learn to serve a constituency that walks and lives in Center City.
Contact Inga Saffron at 215-854-2213, email@example.com, or follow on Twitter @ingasaffron.
Read full story: Changing Skyline: A garage proposal that sprinkles some sparkle