Tuesday, September 28, 2010

COMMENTARY: How to Kill a Street

By Catherine Johnson

Why building a parking garage along Washington Street is a Bad Idea

I fully support the idea of investing in a garage on the Mellili block instead of rebuilding the Arcade. I believe Tom Hartley’s logic is sound regarding the Arcade: repair it but otherwise leave it as is and reserve it for a deserving future project. It will not help a developer or the city encumbering the site with a recently built but possibly inappropriately designed parking garage on this site. However, the location of where it goes on that block and how it relates to existing surroundings must be done with great care.

In my opinion, it would be a bad idea to use it to build a 4- or 5-story garage along Washington Street.

Washington Street is one of the most important streets in the city and some of its most valuable real estate. A parking garage is a piece of infrastructure, a utility, a storage area. You do not front your most important street with a storage space. If you’re wise, you never front any street with a garage or a lot because parking along a sidewalk is detrimental to retail- and commercial-viability. No one wants to walk next to a garage or a parking lot. No one wants to look at a parking garage. No one wants to live or work next to a parking garage. Even if you put retail on the first floor, no one is going to be fooled into forgetting the 4 upper stories looming above. If you face the front of the building with a fa├žade that looks like a commercial building, people will still know it’s a garage. People can perceive the building as lifeless: it’s level upon level of car. No seemingly clever design can replace the power and energy of human presence. People make a 4- or 5- story building an active place day and night, and in turn create an inviting street where people stop, stay and enjoy the experience.

Many of you may not remember what Court, Broad and College Streets looked like before the office building (now Middle Oak) and parking garage were constructed in the late 1980’s. There was a whole range of buildings 2-4 stories tall, some ornate, others plain, with a mix of styles, uses and occupants. Parking was behind buildings in the center of the block. I would look for any excuse to take a little walk around that block when I went downtown or to the library. These 3 streets had an appealing urban character. I especially liked Court Street with its pair of brownstone buildings: the First Church of Christ and the building across from it, a Victorian with storefronts at street level and an athletic club on the third floor. While different, one secular and dolled up, the other sedate and stolid, they felt like kindred spirits. Together the two buildings framed a great street.

Later, when I studied architecture and urban design, I learned that the qualities that made that street so inviting were the same qualities which make all great streets: human presence, many different buildings, many different activities at all times of day, detailed facades, the play of light, definition, boundaries, variety. But most importantly, the car and its storage do not dominate.

Today College and Court Streets feel very different. All the buildings that gave the street its charm and character were demolished. Beautiful First Church lost its mate across the street. The 11-story office building and 6-level parking garage lurk over the street, creating a permanently oppressive quality. Now across from the church’s Gothic-arched doors and stained glass window is the gaping hole of the parking garage entrance and loading dock. It’s the dumpiest 100 feet downtown. I no longer look forward to walking down this portion of the street, and attempt all other variations of route to avoid the banality. They killed my street.

If you have never thought about this relationship of building and parking before, you may not realize how making a poor choice affects perception and ultimately, real estate values and wealth. Pretty counts. Ugly costs, and often more than just money lost from buildings and businesses. Lifeless, unoccupied buildings ultimately steal people from the street, significantly reducing its safety, its attractiveness and its value. When adjacent streets are affected, aggregate lifelessness can deaden a community.

When the time comes to plan the parking, whatever the location, let’s not make another blunder and kill the street by putting a garage or parking lot next to a sidewalk. Let’s plan for new buildings along the sidewalk and set the parking back about 80 feet. The Washington/Court block is a huge block, about 700 x 720’, so large it can accommodate 750-900 parking spaces and about 350,000 sq ft of development (40 rowhouses, 5 commercial buildings, and can double city hall). There are plenty of options for locating a garage or garages, and for planning in phases.

So I encourage us to use planning this parking garage as the first opportunity to mend and improve the quality of the streets downtown in order to restore and rebuild the place we call home. People aren’t attracted to come downtown because there’s a parking spot waiting for them. They come here because downtown Middletown is a place, a real place with a genuine history and a complexity that comes from generations of building and honoring civic character.


Paul Torop said...

Since the new Parking Director has been anointed by the Council as a genius, I suppose that he can do whatever he wants--until he makes his first blunder.

Jane Harris said...

I agree completely with Catherine. I would like to emphasize as well that SCALE is a huge component of urban infrastructure. One of the reasons the Middle Oak building and garage loom so distressingly is their height relative to nearby buildings, such as the russell Library and the original Middlesex Mutual headquarters. A five-story garage next to two-story shops will only add to the sense of discomfiture created by the lifelessness of the garage.

Eye M said...

thank you Catherine. 4 stories is too tall. Thinking of pedestrians in the mix is important.

Anonymous said...

Catherine Johnson is 100% correct. The downtown is an older urban center that should maximize its river siting and not encumber it with a concrete monstrosity.

David Santacroce

Anonymous said...

I also agree completely with Catherine on this one. By his presentation tonight, the new Parking Director clearly demonstrated that he has very little sense of appropriate urban design. His view is one-dimentional and unencompassing. His pitch reminds me of the starting point of everything bad that happens to communities like ours - when big projects get imposed on them by community leaders that are offered sizable federal money grants, so they feel they HAVE to obtain and spend it, even when it doesn't really truly serve anyone but the consultants, architects, lawyers, construction crews and greased pockets. People in his position should be looking at the bigger picture in our town, considering the things that Catherine listed in her article. Middletown is special and attractive because of the humanity and charm, it's arts and grass roots businesses. Don't let people like the new out-of-town Parking Director help destroy that in Middletown. The parking garage move is a BAD IDEA.

Barry said...

I'm with Catherine!

I recently visited Saratoga Springs, NY, a small city with a downtown similar to Middletown.

While not perfect, SS has done a fantastic job integrating a Main Street that is also a state highway, a pedestrian and bicycle friendly downtown, easy to find and access parking a block from Main Street, and beautiful old buildings. I highly recommend Saratoga as a placae where much could be learned for the future of Middletown.

Anonymous said...

WE NEED PARKING IN MIddletown NO QUESTION!!.. .Without this Garage, the future of Middletown business' will suffer greatly. As a new Business owner downtown, we are bringing in 700+ people each month into the downtown area and that number will continue to grow in the future. They have no place to park. This is a logical place for this garage and to all of the people who feel that garage will be big and bulky and not attractive, take a ride to West hartford..and look at their new garages.4 storys looks just fine. The future of our businesses on and around Main Street rely on this garage, and I believe that this can only be an improvement to the Mess behind Melilli Plaza as it stands right now..Some storefronts are sloppy, and If I'm not mistaken, the rear of all the buildings will need to become storefronts, adding to the beauty of the area. Adding a new garage will make the Washington Street corridor more accessible and allow for the empty spaces on Washington Street to become inhabited if there is ample parking there.. Im sure it will be made pleasing to the eye! Can we please allow growth and change in this city and learn to become part of the SOLUTION and not part of the PROBLEM?? I VOTE YES TO THE GARAGE AND I HAVE FAITH IN THE DESIGNERS TO DESIGN AN EYE PLEASING GARAGE THAT WILL IMPROVE THE MELILLI PARKING SITUATION..

Anonymous said...

I've heard this argument from people for generations. Ive been through the good and bad of Middletown, as I have lived here my entire life. The parking garage is a great idea! To many times Ive watched cars circle, especially on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights. This is the next step in revitalizing downtown. As far as the storefronts and buildings, Middletown will always maintain her look. I'm pretty sure the design and location will be thought out very carefully.

No Catherine Johnson is NOT 100 percent correct. Sensible design can be a reality with the correct process. With Route 9 in it's current location, there will be no connection back to the river. Anyone who thinks that lives in an unreal world. Bashing Mr. Hartley's residence and his idea is ridiculous. But hey, this is Middletown if you disagree someone makes a disparaging remark towards you. Let me remind all of you that you are not native to our fine City. Every single one of us came from somewhere else.So unless you offer some constructive advice, keep those types of comments to yourself.

You cannot take into consideration what Middle Oak's did. They set this City up with grandeous designs for an entire complex which did not come to fruition. When the City sued them, they warned they would tie it up for years in court costing the taxpayers thousands of dollars. I can remember their promise to allow public parking when this was under review. They lied. So the lesson the City must take is to maintain control of this idea, and responsibly design a parking facility which makes sense for the downtown businesses.

We can not be held hostage to downtown improvements just because you think it's a bad idea. The anonymous comments about greased palms and taking care of certain people comes from those who believe this is a governmental conspiracy. The same folks who want no change and infrastructure improvements but complain about your taxes going up. It's an old argument, find something new. The same can be said about the new Community Health Center project, but I notice that goes under the radar. That will take parking away from Middletown's residents which is much needed.

Anonymous said...

Hartley came from Disney World and the Casino; what did we expect? And I'm not sure he gets what this community values, either.

I'd much rather invest the same money in a public transportation shuttle where folks could park and ride on and off Main Street. Or provide a sprinkling of new parking slots here and there in and around Main Street instead of one big storage lot.

Anonymous said...

I agree that we need to raise the meter rates (and even consider expanding the hours from 10-6 to 9-7) but this garage on Washington is a bad idea. There is usually street parking available on Court and College plus the court house parking garage. The point of having five blocks on Main St is having people utilize the storefront space with shops and restaurants rather than parking garages.