Parking It 

Rethinking the all-important and much-sought-after parking deck.

But in recent years these megastructures have become ubiquitous as planners and developers respond to the notion that convenient parking is the birthright of every Richmonder. While sports venues, convention centers and hotels have gotten larger, on-site or adjacent parking has become not just expected, but also often mandated by zoning.

Funny, back in the day when Richmond's downtown retail district was teeming, there were at least five movie theaters, two department stores, four churches, three five-and-dimes and the John Marshall Hotel within blocks of each other with relatively little in the way of dedicated parking. Somehow, people found a place for the car.

But decks have become emblematic of the "new" downtown. They dominate the vicinity of the James Center, the Coliseum and Virginia Commonwealth University's medical and biotechnology research centers. Decks are conspicuous near historic sites such as the Woman's Club on West Franklin or Second Presbyterian Church on North Fifth. St. Mary's, Henrico Doctors and Retreat hospitals all have decks. At VCU's Monroe Park campus, mammoth garages have been placed wisely on the outskirts of the central grounds — near highway entrance and exit ramps — thus encouraging foot traffic toward campus.

Increasingly, however, decks are being built, or proposed, at prominent and primary locations. A parking deck is envisioned for the East Broad block where a children's hospital will be built — directly across from Old City Hall. And, like the wolf panting at Little Red Riding Hood's front door, state planners stand ready to pounce on the 800 block of East Broad for a parking garage that would be part of a multi-use complex to replace the state's Eighth Street Office Building (formerly the Murphy Hotel).

Given that nationally designated landmarks on Broad include Monumental Church (designed by Robert Mills, America's first native-born professional architect), VCU's Hunton Hall (originally the First Baptist Church by Thomas U. Walter, who was an architect of the U.S Capitol), and Old City Hall (by architect Elijah E. Myers, the designer of a number of statehouses), can parking decks be copacetic? Perhaps.

Unfortunately, stylish districts in such old American cities as Washington, D.C., or midtown New York offer little guidance, because parking in those places is generally placed underground.

If parking decks are inevitable (which, of course, they aren't) on important thoroughfares such as East Broad Street, at the very least they should adhere to certain criteria.

First, they should interact with the sidewalks to enliven pedestrian activity. VCU did this somewhat effectively at its parking deck on West Broad Street in an overly long structure that stretches between Harrison and Shafer streets. The building has a pedestrian pass-through in its center and houses a campus bookstore and orientation center on the sidewalk level.

It's OK that this VCU deck suffers from a lack of architectural detailing. In contrast, the parking deck at Second Presbyterian Church on Fifth Street has an elevator tower that, in an effort to be contextual, actually upstages the 1845 Gothic Revival church tower itself. No Gothic detail would have been better at the deck.

Similarly, the new parking deck at 14th and Main streets, built by the state of Virginia, is also too busy in the wrong places. Its stair tower at the southeast corner projects above the roofline, blocking views of Main Street Station's exquisite clock tower from the Financial District.

But this is not the building's main offense. While the 1,500-vehicle garage does a number of good things (including replacing a tired state lab building and recycling the lab's building materials), the project misses the big one. The deck stretches for two important downtown blocks without offering any sidewalk activity. State employees stack their cars here from 9 to 5 weekdays, but nothing happens in the interim. This is wrong. Particularly so when one considers that the two neighborhoods the deck connects, Shockoe Bottom and Shockoe Slip, are revived and bustling with activity. This six-story deck could have been a spectacular unifier had retail been placed at the street level. This would have provided critical mass to give the River District the size, complexity and energy of a Georgetown or a South Beach.

The new deck could have had a healing effect on this part of town. As it is, it stopped the architectural bleeding at the intersection of 14th and Main streets, but the patient will never be well.

As we build downtown, each building — and this especially includes parking decks — must do more than serve one function. If each new structure offered a myriad of functions, downtown would be energized and revitalized quickly. A critical question that should be asked of each proposal is, What else does the building provide? S

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