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Revamping the Parking Lot

By David Sokol, Green Source Magazine

Four Architecture Firms Rethink the Parking Lot Giving New Life to Downtown Suburbia

As good-looking garages like Elliott + Associates’ steel mesh–shaded Chesapeake Car Park and the photovoltaic-integrated Santa Monica Civic Center facility spread across the country, the parking structure is not quite the ugly duckling it once was. Yet aesthetic appeal and eco features only fulfill some of the building type’s potential, according to the Rauch Foundation. In January, the Long Island–based organization introduced the results of its ParkingPLUS Design Challenge to demonstrate how these former eyesores can be reimagined to provide new services and to enliven Long Island’s downtowns.

“The ‘plus’ in ParkingPLUS refers to programmatic elements that address community needs, and which offset the cost of development,” explains Jocelyn Wenk, associate director of the Rauch Foundation’s Long Island Index, an annual study that publishes data on economic growth and regional development in Long Island. Wenk adds that precedents like Chesapeake Car Park inspired the challenge.

Initiated in September 2013, ParkingPLUS paired four architecture studios with Long Island municipalities to conceive innovative parking structures for their downtowns. The exercise focused on freeing surface parking area for new uses, and thereby allowing the physical structures to contribute to local economic and cultural life. While all the test sites were New York rail-oriented suburbs, the development solutions are meant to be widely replicable in other commuter communities across the country.

The projects also reveal the environmental benefits of densifying suburbs through vertical parking. A prototype structure created by Boston-based Utile for the Village of Rockville Centre represented the “sweet spot between a utilitarian parking garage and a valuable addition to the civic realm,” explains Utile’s founding principal Tim Love. In addition to encouraging transit usage by increasing parking adjacent to the Long Island Rail Road (LIRR), the prototype is punctuated by leafy courtyards and a ground floor entirely comprised of 20-foot-tall archways so that that space transforms into a lively pedestrian network during off-peak hours. Its combination of tilt-up and precast-concrete construction permits conversion to housing and other uses should long-term vehicle counts—and corresponding sprawl—decline.

Noting that the Village of Patchogue already enjoys a dynamic central business district, dub studios cofounder Michael Piper says his bicoastal firm aimed to make better use of its existing parking. A parking management system would identify available parking spots, slashing demand for newly constructed parking by 30 percent. The electronic infrastructure also would save drivers from circling for a parking spot to the tune of 20,000 gallons of gas.

For the Village of Westbury, New York’s LTL Architects wrapped intermodal functions as well as apartments, shops, a tech incubator, and other building uses around LIRR parking. According to LTL namesake David Lewis, this configuration also reduces drive time. “The commute to the parking lot involves a trip to a grocery store, dropping off the kids,” Lewis says, referring to a phenomenon known as trip chaining. “How can densification of parking provide amenities that really amplify activity in the village itself?” Those amenities would also employ several sustainability strategies, such as cross-laminated timber construction and shading by a 96,700-square-foot photovoltaic array.

Los Angeles–based Roger Sherman Architecture and Urban Design pursued a similar approach for the commuter station in Ronkonkoma, the easternmost hamlet of the challenge. Here, by consolidating recreation, housing, and retail, as well as hotel rooms for a neighboring regional airport, the proposal creates a sense of place outside of the Big Apple’s easy reach.

To discover the ParkingPLUS projects in greater depth, go to the Long Island Index–sponsored website Build a Better Burb.

Source: David Sokol, Green Source Magazine. January 31, 2014.

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