Posts about Public Parking
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.
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.
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.
Election season must be getting underway. Councilmember Mary Cheh (Ward 3), normally a strong proponent of Smart Growth, has proposed spending public money to build a parking garage in Cleveland Park.
Despite having a Metro station in the middle of its commercial corridor, some local merchants and visitors want to see a parking garage built in this walkable section of Connecticut Avenue.
According to the Current (huge PDF), "Cheh initially thought a garage could go next to Ireland's Four Fields, a bar at 3412 Connecticut Ave., where a small parking lot fronts Connecticut, with businesses in the rear."
This is a spectacularly bad idea. With an operating deficit of nearly a half-billion dollars, the District should not use scarce public funds to subsidize driving. According to a study for the District Department of Transportation (DDOT), the cost for above-ground structured parking is $26,000 per space.
In recent years, including under the leadership of current DDOT Director Gabe Klein, the District has prioritized investments such as the Circulator bus routes, streetcars, and SmartBike, which give residents and visitors in the region an alternative to driving. These steps are more appropriate uses of public funds to draw customers to Cleveland Park than the more expensive and traffic-inducing proposition of building a parking garage.
Instead of the circuitous approach of attempting to alleviate parking issues by subdizing driving and creating more auto congestion, DDOT and Ward 3 residents should look at demand-management strategies instead that will avoid a costly and permanent dead-zone on Connecticut Avenue.
In the article, ANC Commissioner Leila Afzal suggests another way to address Cleveland Park's parking problems: make the Residential Parking Permit (RPP) privileges only apply to actual residents of the area, rather than residents from as far away as the Maryland border. The original intent of RPP was to stop people from driving to a Metro station and parking on nearby neighborhood streets, but in Cleveland Park and Woodley Park, that's still endemic.
As area ANC Commissioners have often suggested and David Alpert discussed last year, creating sub-zones in certain areas like Cleveland Park could reserve more of the area's parking for residents and shoppers instead of distant drivers looking for free commuter parking.
Better alternatives than using taxpayer money to subsidize driving include extending the Circulator bus to Cleveland Park. Currently, the Circulator ends at Woodley Park. Assuming the proposed parking garage contains 30 spots built at DDOT's estimate of $26,000 per spot, this would cost the District
$7,800,000 $780,000, plus ongoing maintenance costs which parking fees might not cover.
Similarly, another alternative that deserves consideration is extending the proposed streetcar from Woodley Park to Cleveland Park. It is only 0.8 miles between the two Metro stations. At the estimated cost of $40 million per mile for the streetcar, this extension would cost $32 million. The amount saved from not building a parking garage and revenue gained from a performance parking district in Cleveland Park can be used to fund this potential extension.
Finally, the District could help struggling businesses in Cleveland Park's commercial corridor by allowing greater density in that section. Moderate-sized residential buildings line Connecticut Avenue to the north and south of Cleveland Park, but the main commercial strip, especially the Park and Shop, is almost entirely just one and two story buildings. Building 2-3 levels of new residential units above these retail establishments and restaurants would bring new residents to this area, immediately next to the Metro station, and adding more built-in customers for the restaurants and shops of Cleveland Park.
Ben Thielen is the founder and spokesperson of the Wisconsin Avenue Streetcar Coalition.
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