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Underground parking enables better public spaces

In an article last week, Post reporter Katherine Shaver suggests that the prevalence of structured parking in Montgomery County signals a "cultural shift" and an "urban turn" for what many claim is the "perfect suburbia."

What's missing, however, is that the rise of underground garages means we can still accommodate drivers while making room for other things, including more and higher-quality open spaces.

New Transit Village
North Bethesda Market under construction. Photo by DearEdward on Flickr.

When I used to work at an ice-cream parlor in Rockville Town Square, I'd get phone calls from customers with questions. One thing always seemed to upset my callers: it wasn't about the cost of ice cream, or what flavors we did or didn't have in stock, or even that you had to pay to park there. It was that the only parking came in an underground garage behind the store.

"You mean I have to park in a garage?" they'd ask. "I hate parking garages, and I don't want to shop anywhere where I have to use one."

I don't know how many customers this deterred, but I'm not surprised that people are unhappy parking in a garage to shop at the new Whole Foods in North Bethesda Market. This new development along Rockville Pike in White Flint also contains the tallest apartment building in Montgomery County.

Those used to the vast, free parking lots outside Whole Foods' former location in Congressional Plaza, a few miles away, probably aren't happy about going down a steep ramp and paying $1.50 an hour to store their car. Not only that, but I went there a couple of weeks ago and found the garage crowded and difficult to navigate, though this may be partially due to construction of the still-unfinished shopping center.

Structured parking has been a fact of life in Montgomery County for decades. Silver Spring, Singular found this 1970's-era ad for Bethlehem Steel showing a then-new garage on Ellsworth Drive. There are parking garages, with aboveground and underground portions, in the downtowns of Silver Spring, Bethesda, Rockville and Wheaton. Across Rockville Pike from North Bethesda Market is White Flint Mall, which has had parking garages since it opened almost forty years ago.

I like parking garages because they can keep my car cool in the summer and dry when it rains or snows. However, a poorly designed and poorly lit garage can feel really uncomfortable. They can also give a lousy first impression to people going from their car to a shop, office or apartment building. Underground garages can also make users feel unsafe. When a developer proposed replacing a public parking lot in downtown Silver Spring with a garage to make room for other uses, one neighbor worried it would be a draw for crime.

One way to alleviate these concerns is to bring more natural light into underground parking areas. The garage below Ikea's College Park branch is set into a hill, meaning that two sides are open to the outside. At University Town Center in Hyattsville, underground garages are lit by a shaft reaching to the street above.

View From 14th Floor Balcony, Gallery at White Flint
Parking lots along Rockville Pike are giving away to other uses,
like housing, retail, and open space. Photo by author.

There are trade-offs to parking garages. You can't just pull up to a space, you might have to take stairs or an elevator back to the street, and you usually have to pay for a space. But they do conserve land, which can go to other uses.

In North Bethesda Market, there are wide sidewalks with lush plantings and lots of benches. The first thing you see when you come out of the garage is an elegant plaza with a fountain at the center and lined with shops and restaurants. Eventually, this will be just one part of a larger network of urban open spaces throughout White Flint, none of which would be possible with the surface parking lots that line Rockville Pike today.

Building up on parking lots is one of the changes that the Post calls a "threat" to the suburban way of life, whether in Montgomery or across the river in Fairfax, which is undergoing similar growing pains. While there are a few special places where parking lots can be a suburban community's gathering space, most are just places to store cars. If done well, structured garages can do that while making room for the places where people gather and form community. That sounds like a way to make suburbs stronger, not eradicate them.

Dan Reed is an urban planner at Nelson\Nygaard. He writes his own blog, Just Up the Pike, and serves as the Land Use Chair for the Action Committee for Transit. He lives in downtown Silver Spring. All opinions are his own. 


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Dear suburban drivers,

Get used to it.

by Alex B. on Jun 1, 2011 3:10 pm • linkreport

I am certainly not totally averse to parking garages. I use them regularly but I do find myself reacting to their form. And that in turn will determine if I'm ever willing to park there again.

* Do not want to leave my keys with a valet because they want to box me in. Hate. This. So. Much.
* Parking garage with many blind corners or extremely tight lanes with two way traffic are frustrating.
* Do not want to go up or down more than 3 levels in a parking garage unless it has an express ramp like the Ballston Common Mall or Pentagon City Mall.
* Don't like when parking garage access to street is setup as if it is only intended for office workers of that building. Being funneled to the lobby is fine. Being funneled to a maze of service corridors with little signage sucks.

An example of a parking garage I like would be the Market Commons at Clarendon. Several points of entrance and exit. Setup with a mostly 1-way traffic flow.

by Paul on Jun 1, 2011 3:14 pm • linkreport

Shoup alert! Parking garages are good! Nonsense! Throw them out with the parking minimums!

by charlie on Jun 1, 2011 3:21 pm • linkreport

Something I thought about when the story first originated was about the reasons people were parking in the garage, namely, to go to whole foods. Maybe its not simply the fact that one must park in a garage but also that whole foods is a very popular store that people will drive further than they would another grocery store. Maybe the subtext to the post article is that there is more demand than people realize for the types of food whole foods sells. And since whole foods is expanding into more urban areas more people are getting used to that shopping experience.

by Canaan on Jun 1, 2011 3:24 pm • linkreport

Those used to the vast, free parking lots outside Whole Foods' former location in Congressional Plaza, a few miles away, probably aren't happy about going down a steep ramp and paying $1.50 an hour to store their car.

That particular vast parking lot, at the old location, was no joy either. I haven't been in the new ramp, but it would have to be pretty lousy to be worse.

A parking garage associated with the supermarket is apparently one of the problems with the continuing non-development of Clarksburg Town Center:

by Miriam on Jun 1, 2011 3:29 pm • linkreport

Click through and read the comments to the WP article on the White Flint Whole Foods. The problem is that this particular parking lot happens to suck. Peeps in MoCo use garages all the time without complaint. See, e.g., White Flint mall across the street.

by Tom on Jun 1, 2011 3:44 pm • linkreport

Okay, so the WP comments are broken, and the OP does note the White Flint mall. Still, please believe me that the new WFM parking lot really does suck.

by Tom on Jun 1, 2011 3:57 pm • linkreport

I was going to make a snide comment about people being slave to their cars, etc etc, but I thought about how I used to drive to Friendship Heights and try to park in their frustrating, poorly desinged underground garage underneath the Cheescake Factory. I hated that garage with a passion, so much so that I would rather park a mile away and take the bus.

Nice parking garages with a certain "flow" and ease-of-use about them require the elmination of valuable parking spots to make room for wider turning lanes and more room to pull in and out.

by cmc on Jun 1, 2011 4:04 pm • linkreport

I found the Post article a bit odd because there have been parking garages in other parts of Bethesda for as long as I can remember. Even Montgomery Mall and White Flint Mall have had parking garages, in addition to lots, for decades.

The Safeway on Old Georgetown Rd in downtown Bethesda has had underground parking since it opened in the late 80s and the Giant just a few blocks away on Arlington Rd got underground parking, in addition to a surface lot, after it was rebuilt a few years ago.

by Eric Fidler on Jun 1, 2011 4:13 pm • linkreport

I've noticed that over in Europe, in the last decade, parking garages have become much better to navigate, and much better lit. All I can see is a better paint job, better lighting and more cleaning, but I am sure somebody has thought deeper about it and pulled some other psychological tricks.

Anyway, Alex B is correct: Get used to it.

by Jasper on Jun 1, 2011 4:16 pm • linkreport

I will say that I have been to that new whole foods parking garage a couple of times and no, it is not very good, narrow lanes, etc.

by Aaron on Jun 1, 2011 4:16 pm • linkreport

I would like to see parking garages priced lower than nearby street parking at popular locations. The incentive for many places now is to search endlessly for street parking because it's both (a) more convenient and (b) less expensive. If you give the cheapskates (and people who will be shopping for awhile or seeing a movie) reason to go immediately to the garage. And people who are just stopping for a moment will more easily find street parking near their destination.

by David on Jun 1, 2011 4:46 pm • linkreport

I will echo others' sentiments when I say that this Post article was terribly misguided. No, it's not that Montgomery County residents are not used to parking garages. From from it, as Dan mentioned. It's that they don't take kindly to poorly designed ones. I have had plenty of bad experiences in garages (narrow aisles, poor sight distances, narrow spaces, circuitous layout) and can empathize with those who say that this particular garage is a bad example (not having gone there myself).

Paying for this parking is another matter altogether, and truth be told beyond the Beltway, paid parking is still a tough sell when there is usually another strip mall close by with acres of free parking. Not that I'm against this move towards garages as I would love to see that land being used more efficiently. Luckily, most garages now use kiosks that accept credit cards which are infinitely better than having to keep a roll of quarters (the garage on Bethesda Avenue, I am looking at you).

by Reza on Jun 1, 2011 4:50 pm • linkreport

People will change. They understand parking in structures in Bethesda and Silver Spring without a peep. The problem with that particular building is that the wayfinding absolutely sucks. I know, I happened to be there yesterday.

by Richard Layman on Jun 1, 2011 5:26 pm • linkreport

I'm probably insane. I work in Montgomery County (unfortunately) and I consider it hell on earth, big parts of it anyway, just hate it. Ugly sprawling ugliness and traffic. But they say it's perfect. Don't know what to think...

by yrb on Jun 1, 2011 5:27 pm • linkreport

It was interesting to me to see Best Buy in Tysons Corner move frm its location that had underground parking to one that had a big parking lot in front of the store.

Also, the Tysons Demonstration Project -- the Georgelas Company -- will be building parking structures partially above and partially below ground and imposing charges for parking. It will be interesting to see how the market reacts.

by tmtfairfax on Jun 1, 2011 6:14 pm • linkreport


Bummer. I'm sorry to hear that, having grown up in Montgomery County. I hope you'll come around when you look past the built form and find that there are interesting people, awesome food, and fun times to be had (though not after 10pm, you know, 'cause we have work tomorrow). It's certainly not for everyone, but I wouldn't call it worthy of hate.

by dan reed! on Jun 1, 2011 7:20 pm • linkreport

Not sure what it is about Whole Foods parking garages, but most of them in the DC area suck bad. North Bethesda, Alexandria, Tenleytown, Georgetown, have cramped lanes with sharp corners, steep ramps, narrow parking spaces, dingy underlit lighting, and confusing navigation. Friendship Heights is new and it's a little better.

Underground garages are so expensive that developers are loathe to provide enough space and lighting for a decent garage. But it's false economy if you are losing customers who will do anything to avoid a difficult, dungeonlike parking experience. That includes most women...

by Behindthewheel on Jun 1, 2011 9:29 pm • linkreport

A subtext for disliking garages is safety/security and I've heard people voice that in places as benign as downtown Bethesda at lunch time. People don't like to complain about security in the 'burbs because they are predicated on not being dangerous like the District, even though most of the places suburbanites go in DC are quite safe and most of the 'burbs aren't entirely crimefree.

As for inconvenience, the Pike has some of the most inconvenient parking lots imaginable, with speed bumps, stop signs in the middle of nowhere, and inefficient circulation patterns, etc. WF's old location was far from the worst, but it's not difficult to identify plenty of offenders like Federal Plaza on the Pike side. These aren't restricted to the Pike as I noticed on a recent excursion to various parts of Fairfax County.

Another consideration is that DC area folks are Olympic class whiners. they may be barely able to change a lightbulb but they sure can complain if something causes the slightest inconvenience.

by Rich on Jun 1, 2011 9:32 pm • linkreport

I LOVE underground parking. With open lots, I have to worry about loading kids and groceries into swealtering hot cars (ow, daddy, the seat belt is too hot!), navigating through the pouring rain or worrying about the snow. Given a choice, I will always choose underground.

by SJE on Jun 1, 2011 10:01 pm • linkreport

The parking garage at Whole Foods North Bethesda is FREE, or at least it was when I shopped there last Thursday!

by Mel on Jun 1, 2011 10:49 pm • linkreport

GGW needs an article like this about the importance of suburban and especially urban underground freeways.

by Douglas Willinger on Jun 2, 2011 12:01 am • linkreport

And so does Just Up The Pike.

by Douglas Willinger on Jun 2, 2011 12:01 am • linkreport

@Behindthewheel: But it's false economy if you are losing customers who will do anything to avoid a difficult, dungeonlike parking experience. That includes most women...

This is not the first time that I have heard that women don't like parking garages. What is the reason for the dislike by women, specifically, for "difficult, dungeonlike parking experiences"? And are there any data on people's willingness to park in parking garages, broken down by gender, or are there just anecdotes?

by Miriam on Jun 2, 2011 7:52 am • linkreport

From what I've heard, some women don't like underground parking garages because of security concerns.

by Thayer-D on Jun 2, 2011 8:45 am • linkreport

I agree with yrb. MoCo is ugly. I grew up in a Chicago suburb that didn't have ugly retail strip malls and huge luxury apartment buildings being built every three miles from the last. Rockville Pike is an eyesore. It's too congested with cars and the plaza where the Bally's is completely hideous.

by Mina on Jun 2, 2011 9:02 am • linkreport

The specific reason that women are more hesitant to use parking garages are the same as other complaints people have about then. They're generally poorly lit and there are poor sight lines. This means 1) it would be difficult to see and evade an attacker and 2) it would be difficult for any witnesses to identify an attacker. Now, I don't have any statistics about how dangerous parking garages actually are, but I do know that as a woman, I look over my shoulder more when I'm in one versus when I'm in a parking lot. This doesn't mean I don't think they should be built - just trying to clarify why some people would feel unsafe in them.

by frances on Jun 2, 2011 9:24 am • linkreport

Of course Rockville Pike is nasty lookin - that's why the county is overhauling it. But to say that 355 represents MoCo and therefore "MoCo is ugly" is pretty laughably inane and makes you sound like a 5 year old.

by molly on Jun 2, 2011 9:29 am • linkreport

@cmc: Unfortunately, there are places around here where one is required to be a slave to one's car. I have a tendency to drive on weekends because I live in southeast Fairfax County; I'd rather drive and spend forty minutes getting to a destination than spend close to an hour and a half waiting for train transfers and other such things, in stations with no air conditioning. It's not cost-effective, but it IS time-effective.

Well-designed underground parking is a great idea, and I wish more places around here had it. Well...around where I live, at any rate; there's a lot that could be done with it on the Route 1 corridor.

by @Ser Amantio di Nicolao on Jun 2, 2011 10:01 am • linkreport

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