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Public Spaces

Put rooftop bars atop empty parking garages?

Montgomery County has lots of empty parking garage roofs with great views, but they're closed to the public. We could take advantage of this wasted space by turning them into event spaces.

View from an empty parking garage in Silver Spring. All photos by the author.

Last week, a map of rooftop bars in DC made by Petworth resident Tom Allison circulated on social media. Produced with the help of contributors on Reddit, the map shows several lofty watering holes in the District and Arlington, but just one in Montgomery County, at the Doubletree Hotel in Bethesda.

There have been some rooftop parties in the county, like Sky At Five in Rockville Town Square and one hosted by the apartment building formerly known as Georgian Towers with a model-turned-sushi bar. But how can we do more? On Twitter, reader Joshua Gorman joked about having a speakeasy on the top floor of a parking garage in downtown Silver Spring.

It sounds far out, but it might actually work. Montgomery County is blessed with a number of above-ground public parking garages in the downtowns of Silver Spring, Bethesda, and Wheaton. Their rooftop levels have great views, but outside of a few events each year, most of them are empty.

Our parking garages may not be as pretty as the Herzog and de Meuron-designed garage in Miami Beach which doubles as an event space. But since many of our garages are intended for commuters, they're usually next to Metro stations or bus stops, meaning you don't have to drink and drive.

People and cars are forbidden from using the top floors of many public garages in Montgomery County.

Unfortunately, most parking garage roofs in Montgomery County are blocked off with chains when they're not being used for parking. County police threaten to arrest anyone who tries to go up there.

In 2011, photographer Chip Py attempted to do a photo shoot of a popular go-go band atop a parking garage in downtown Wheaton. He'd been detained by police for taking pictures there before, so he decided to contact the Department of Transportation, which manages the garages.

"It was 13 people, lights and everything. And I didn't want to risk going in there and getting it shut down," Py said. But officials from the county said he'd get arrested for trespassing. "You can't do anything in there except park a car," he remembers being told.

Of course, people go anyway. One Saturday afternoon last year, I decided to visit the top floor of every parking garage in downtown Silver Spring. As with any forbidden-but-accessible place in the urban realm, I also found teenagers. On one garage roof, I walked into a stairwell to leave and stumbled on two kids sketching and listening to music on a little boombox. The smell of pot wafted through the air. I wanted to ask, "Why are you here?" but before I could, they freaked out and packed up.

To me at least, the answer is obvious. I remember sneaking onto the roof of the Town Square Garage on Ellsworth Drive with my friends from high school before it opened in 2004. There's the thrill of breaking the rules, yeah, but there's also the great view and the feeling like you're in the middle of everything and completely alone at the same time.

Two kids hang out atop a Silver Spring parking garage in 2010.

That's not too different from being in a great urban park or plaza. Public parking garages belong to the public, and we should think about them as part of the public realm. In other words, Montgomery County should take advantage of all this empty space they have, especially since it's not being used for parking. Of course, not all parking garages are engineered to actually hold people, like this one in Phoenix that violently shook when Arizona State University students held a dance party on top. We'd have to make sure that our garages were up to the task.

In recent months, there's been a lot of talk about growing the county's nightlife scene. However, it's primarily been about street-level drinking, or in the case of the Quarry House Tavern in downtown Silver Spring, subterranean drinking.

Not only would rooftop events on parking garages be a good use of wasted space, but they might be unusual enough to draw people here for a night out. The DC area may have a lot of rooftop bars, but definitely not one like this.

For more examples, check out this photoset of views from parking garages in downtown Silver Spring.

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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Not sure about using parking garages, but in new mixed developments why not get some high-rise developers to set aside the top floor for club or event space the same way they set aside the ground floor for retail? There's plenty of office buildings that are completely dead at night.

by Chris S. on May 7, 2013 2:50 pm • linkreport

The garage floor underneath the top floor is often a good place for events too -- and it can be acoustically sealed off more easily than a roof can.

I've been to a club in Santiago, Chile that was in a converted garage floor like that.

by Matt C on May 7, 2013 3:02 pm • linkreport

I came across this while researching my trip to London. It wasn't the only one I read about either.

by drumz on May 7, 2013 3:03 pm • linkreport

Great read Dan. Any idea why the top floors are blocked off now?

by Steven Yates on May 7, 2013 3:15 pm • linkreport

there's at least one other rooftop bar in Montgmery County. Outside the beltay, but Growlers in Gaithersburg's Old Town has a deck/rooftop bar.

by Birdie on May 7, 2013 3:25 pm • linkreport

They're building a rooftop bar in Bethesda's Woodmont Triangle. I generally think these rooftop bars work out better on the top of lower rise buildings, and everything proposed in Silver Spring lately has been very tall. Getting a developer to fork over that roof space, that they often use for green roofs and for on site amenities for residents is very unlikely.

by Gull on May 7, 2013 4:35 pm • linkreport

Wow. Lots of great ideas and discussions are found on this blog. But now: rooftop bars? Seems like the epitome of "first world problems".

by Rich on May 7, 2013 5:06 pm • linkreport

Seems like the epitome of "first world problems".

We live in a first world country, sooooooooo...

by MLD on May 7, 2013 5:12 pm • linkreport

I think it's an interesting idea -- does seem a shame to waste premium views on parking space. I wonder if lawyers would put the kabosh on this kind of thing though. They could possibly get around it by renting out the space and having people sign whatever waivers they need for liability.

by Alan B. on May 7, 2013 5:17 pm • linkreport

Sounds like a great plan for drunk driving.

by Rich on May 7, 2013 7:11 pm • linkreport

As well as the utility of multi-decked, automobile based infrastructure:

by Douglas Andrew Willinger on May 7, 2013 10:08 pm • linkreport

If you don't have a source of running water, you cannot have a rooftop bar. Most parking garages are not piped for water with the exception of fire-suppression systems.

by ksu499 on May 8, 2013 7:54 am • linkreport

I agree that they are wasted space. But I think a better use would be turning them into green roofs. They seem like such easy targets to reduce the amount of impermeable surfaces. It would be a step in the right direction to reduce runoff as well at the urban heat island.

by Mark P on May 8, 2013 8:48 am • linkreport

it's also how much market do you have for rooftop bar patrons. cf. AFI adding a lot of DC venues to their documentary festival. BUt shitty locations are still shitty locations.

And but/2, it's a good interim use for the Silver Spring Transit Center.

by Richard Layman on May 8, 2013 10:57 pm • linkreport

Does anyone have an answer for Steven Yates?

by selxic on May 9, 2013 7:43 am • linkreport

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