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 façade 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.