Can Building a “Giant Wall of Parking” Kill a Downtown?

Jamie Littlefield is a writer and Strong Towns advocate based in Provo, UT. Today she's sharing a guest article about a proposed parking garage in her downtown. Read more about parking issues and solutions here.

Here’s a quick and easy recipe for dividing a downtown:

First, build an eight story concrete structure, making it one of the tallest buildings in the district. Be sure it spans the length of an entire elongated Utah-style block. Next, add 1,400 parking stalls. Finally, lobby for exemption from all code that requires ground floor retail, residential, or office space. 

Think this Giant Wall of Parking couldn’t happen to your town? Residents of Provo, Utah thought so, too. In fact, the city previously passed code requiring street-facing parking structures to include at least 30 feet of habitable ground-floor space (such as retail, offices, and restaurants).

But now, this massive parking garage concept is making its way to the Provo City Council for approval. A major concern is that council members might be pushed to make a bad call if they can’t imagine another possibility.

Not Every Wall is a Fence

What’s the point of a wall? To keep people out. To keep people in. To physically divide a space into two parts. To visually and psychologically create a stop or an end to something.

Citizens are pushing back against the concept of a Giant Wall of Parking that divides downtown Provo.

Just two blocks North of Provo’s Center Street (downtown’s primary commercial corridor) is a massive block-long developable lot. For two decades, the city has been focused on extending the economic opportunities of downtown outside of its charming Center Street.

But, a conceptual 8-story parking structure (towering above almost every other downtown building) will act as a wall. It will discourage anyone that’s not singularly focused on parking from using the street.It’s a concrete sign with a clear, visual cue: “Turn Back. Downtown Ends Here.”

A Matter of Arrangement

Parking is needed in this area. It’ll be close to a new hotel, a technical school, and future office towers. However, providing ground-floor, pedestrian-accessible space doesn’t eliminate the ability to provide the needed parking. Instead, it’s a matter of arrangement.

Citizen activists are getting creative with maps. They’re rotating buildings and thinking about the way we utilize the space. Smart design might lead to a development that rearranges the original concept to provide ground-floor retail and provides the developer with enough space to provide the needed parking.

This entire lot is slated to become a massive parking garage. (Source: Jamie Littlefield)

This entire lot is slated to become a massive parking garage. (Source: Jamie Littlefield)

Blending in or Bringing Life?

When neighbors first started speaking up about this project, possible remediation focused on making the Giant Wall of Parking “blend in” with the surrounding area rather than meeting multi-use code requirements. Murals could be painted. Trees and planters could help disguise it. Some glass or metal could add some architectural flair.

The problem is, citizens don’t want their city blocks to simply blend in. They want their blocks to bring life.

Soon, this project will come before the city council. Their decision will lead to one of two vastly different downtowns.

In one scenario, the city divides downtown into two and creates a dead-zone just blocks from its main economic hub.  The street will likely be quiet. More than a few visitors will walk back to their cars, interlacing keys between their knuckles… just in case.

In another scenario, they city still has the parking needed for surrounding businesses. But, there’s also life on the street. Neighbors may stop to pick up a cup of hot cocoa or a magazine at a corner store. Visitors may park for the Convention Center and buy a sandwich on the way back to their car. People will walk, chat, and enjoy the street the way streets are meant to be enjoyed.

Preventing Bad Development

In Provo, most residents thought they’d already prevented the possibility of something like the Giant Wall of Parking. Yet, they’re back where they started. Creating code hasn’t eliminated the possibility of this project. Nor has vigilant citizen engagement.

What else can they do? Has your town done anything that would prevent something like the Giant Wall of Parking? Share your thoughts in the comments. 

(Top photo source: Steve Morgan)

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About the Author

Jamie Littlefield is the author of an upcoming book about placemaking — the wild and wonderful ways people are re-creating their cities. A former college English instructor, she is now traveling the world in search of inspiring stories from innovators working to create a sense of place and connection with the cities they call home. Follow her on Twitter: @writingjamie.