Friday, July 18, 2014

Ample Parking, Day or Night

When I first moved to Washington, D.C. almost twenty years ago, my large studio cost a modest $450 a month, development was stale, and the internet was for nerds. Today my first apartment - untouched and still teeming with more roaches than Joe's Apartment - asks a whopping $1200 a month. And that's considered affordable.

Twenty years old and raised on a farm, I was just tiptoeing my way into urban life. Put your license and cash in your sock at night, but leave a few bucks in your wallet in case you get mugged. Don't make eye contact with the beggars. And don't go in Meridian Hill Park after sundown unless you're buying drugs or a blow job. 

The neighborhood once home to abandoned embassies, one of them torched, is now full of microbrews, new families, and strollers extending all the way to Maryland.

But one thing hasn't changed, a frustrating urban ill I learned to deal with very early on: You will never find a parking space at your door. 

In Washington and many other cities, parking hassles are acceptedly traded for the luxury of living downtown. If you have to own a car for work, circling your block, even the surrounding blocks for twenty minutes is just something you have to do. 

But in Philadelphia, a city three times the size of Washington, D.C., having a car isn't largely perceived to be a privilege or unfortunate necessity, many view door front parking as a right. That attitude is expected in some emerging neighborhoods where long time Philadelphia residents spent the better part of the 20th Century living amongst abandonment when parking was a breeze. 

As the city's built environment grows, so does its population. Neighborhoods in North and South Philadelphia once vacant enough to accommodate a car for every member of the family parked along their block are quickly discovering what cities a fraction of the size have known for decades. 

Gone are the days of saving your spot with a piece of rusted lawn furniture. South Philadelphia residents may soon even find themselves faced with the fact that median parking is illegal, a law currently overlooked that will inevitably be enforced, further exasperating the parking within nearby neighborhoods.

Dead for no good reason

But where the parking gripes are even more quizzical is in the city's core. Not only do an over abundance of surface lots and parking garages adequately accommodate those living and working in Center City, the individuals who live and work here knowingly chose apartments and accepted jobs in one of the nation's densest downtowns within one of its biggest cities.

Ironically the same voices in Center City that champion better pedestrianization, urbanism, and bike lanes are the same ones who pipe up when a developer proposes a new apartment or office building, citing traffic and parking as a concern. 

Old City, a neighborhood once densely packed with warehouses and factories is now a high priced neighborhood full of charming alleyways broken up by small surface lots to accommodate both unnecessary cars brought in from New Jersey for nightlife as well as the community's reluctance to allow larger development that might bring with it a parking garage. 

But an even greater hypocrisy occurs across town near Rittenhouse Square where the Center City Residents' Association blocked the development of a sky scraping apartment tower at 19th and Chestnut. Despite a half dozen nearby high-rises, the CCRA claimed that spot zoning should not allow a building so tall, yammering from buildings that spot zoning allowed.

The larger complaint apparent in community meetings, on message boards, and the online comment Rabbit Hole regarded parking and traffic. With streets in the vicinity overwhelmingly metered, the parking grief is a nonstarter. Wealthy tenants who would inexplicably want to park on the street would need to hunt for spaces well below Rittenhouse Square. But more realistically, most who even owned a car would likely rent a space in one of the dozens of lots and garages in the area, many just a block away.

Despite being an American powerhouse that continues to grow taller and spread wider, Philadelphia's old habits dictate development in our densest pockets. The ongoing spot zoning argument doesn't validate the concerns of resident activists, rather it exposes an outdated zoning map, one that allows the tallest building between New York in Chicago on Arch Street, but nixes a high-rise apartment building a few blocks south.

Our current zoning in Center City refuses to accept the fact that the city between Vine and South is fusing into a cohesively proper downtown. There are places where height is relevant, notably in the Independence Historic District. But spot zoning in and around Rittenhouse has already set a precedent, and any debate about shadows and wind tunnels should be moot. And parking should never be considered in any debate regarding development downtown. 

The only regions within our city where development seems free to do its job is where the Atlanta-ization of our city is possible, where vast disjoined apartment complexes can provide ample parking near the Philadelphia Museum of Art and University City. Meanwhile hypocrisy and entitlement are stymying development in the one region within the city where common sense says it should touch the sky.

The day will come when logic, reason, and the quest to truly become an advanced and competitive city will supersede the lost cause of revisiting a Philadelphia that died in the 1950s, a lost cause that quells its agitation simply through the posterity of quiet streets and quaint architecture. We're a big city primed to be the next New York. Let's start acting like it.

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