Clay Carley doesn’t mince words about parking garages.
“An open-air garage is probably the ugliest architectural structure you can build, maybe next to federal buildings in the 1980s,” said Carley, a longtime developer of Downtown Boise residential and commercial buildings. “They’re just butt ugly. Period.”
For a city that takes pride in its Downtown architecture, parking garages’ appearance can be a sore spot. In 2013, one proposal triggered a monthslong battle.
The state of Idaho wanted to build a garage just north of the Capitol, between 5th, 6th, Washington and Jefferson streets. Neighbors and architecture buffs hated the state’s design. They said it looked too much like, well, a parking garage — and would clash with its surroundings, which transition between the Capitol mall and the historic neighborhood to the north.
City design and planning committees sided with the state’s opponents.
The solution? “Vertical elements.” The term refers to columns, spaced a couple of feet apart, running up and down the outside of the structure, architect Wayne Thowless explained during a Boise City Council hearing. Adding them would make the building look less like a garage and more like the Len B. Jordan Building on the south side of Washington Street, or an existing parking garage the state owned southeast of the new one.
“The now infamous vertical elements,” as the state’s lawyer at one point called them, became a condition of the council’s approval. They’re on the garage today.
The lawyer’s tongue-in-cheek remark reflected state leaders’ frustration with Boise’s process, but it ignored the fact that masking parking garages is an important part of urban planning. And almost five years later, with Downtown attracting more people, it’s becoming vital to provide spaces for idle cars without sacrificing aesthetics.
Beautifying garages is tricky because they need good ventilation to remove the emissions from cars driving through them. The traditional approach was to leave openings between a garage’s levels. But those gaps contribute to a jarring, utilitarian look.
And they’re expensive. Carley said covered parking in Boise can run anywhere from $22,500 per space to almost twice that, depending on how well the structure is masked.
So developers and planners come up with creative solutions to parking garages’ undesirable aesthetics. They use those “vertical elements” or build storefronts to cover up the parking decks. The Park Place garage in Missoula, Montana, has colorful screening and a prominent corner tower that helped it win an international design award.
Carley plans to incorporate a roughly 550-space parking garage as part of a hotel project on Front Street between 5th and 6th streets. The garage component would be partially concealed; enclosed space for hotel functions would hide it from traffic on Front and 6th streets.
Boise standards require some kind of screening — also known as skinning — though not to the level of what Carley’s doing.
“Our first approach on these is always to try to see if we can work with the developer to do storefronts or something along the frontage,” Boise planning director Hal Simmons said. “But there’s seldom enough commercial demand to get them to go along with that.”
Screening is an appropriate requirement, said Carley, but it adds another 20 percent onto the building’s cost for things like ventilation and fire suppression.
The $2.50-per-hour charge people pay to park in Downtown garages isn’t enough to cover loan payments, maintenance and other costs of garages, he said. Neither is the $3 that Capital City Development Corp., Boise’s urban renewal agency and the owner of most garage parking spaces Downtown, is about to start charging in its facilities.
“So if the city says to a developer, ‘We’re going to make you skin that,’ because it’s the right thing to do aesthetically, today you’re effectively eliminating that parking garage from getting built,” he said.
Carley said private garage owners would need to charge about $4 per hour to cover their costs. Since that isn’t happening, private developers aren’t building standalone garages. Instead, they’re incorporating covered parking into residential or commercial projects.
And even CCDC — which uses property taxes to help cover parking costs — doesn’t build its own garages these days. John Brunelle, its executive director, said the agency prefers to buy or lease spaces in private garages such as Gardner Co.’s Pioneer Crossing project on the southwest corner of Front and 11th streets.
Every Downtown parking garage approved recently has some kind of screening. There are the vertical elements on the state’s new garage. A future garage on the St. Luke’s campus will feature storefront-type space on the first floor. And one on the southwest corner of Front and 11th streets will include a combination of storefronts and architectural features.
Often, skinning is required as a condition of approval for a larger plan, such as the St. Luke’s project.
It wasn’t always that way. In 1963, a Menlo Park, California, company built a private garage that violates about every urban design standard on the southwest corner of Capitol Boulevard and Bannock Street — facing the Capitol.
Unscreened openings separate the parking decks. An industrial-style entrance faces the primary frontage on Bannock. Landscaping between the street and garage is minimal.
“That’s a pretty dismal design,” Simmons said. “That would be the worst case. That never happens anymore.”
Twenty-five years later, CCDC’s Capitol Terrace, located between Capitol Boulevard, Idaho Street, Main Street and 8th Street, set a new standard for design Downtown. Like the Capitol and Bannock garage, openings between Capitol Terrace’s decks are visible on its north and south sides. But colorful architectural features make the openings less obvious. Entrances and exits are minimized.
Storefronts wrap around Capitol Terrace’s floor level, dominating sightlines for people on foot and in cars. Icons like The Egyptian Theatre, condominiums and office space above Chase Bank, The Piper Pub and Grill and The Balcony Club cover the east and west sides.
Historical context is the difference between Capitol Terrace and the garage at Capitol and Bannock.
In the 1960s and 1970s, urban cores across the United States were dying. Driven by the proliferation of automobiles, cities were becoming more suburban. Indoor shopping malls — surrounded by huge parking lots and major arterials or freeways — were seen as the way of the future.
Downtown Boise was a victim of this movement. By the turn of the 1980s, it was on life support. CCDC’s predecessor, the Boise Redevelopment Agency, tore down several iconic buildings and was on the verge of leveling more. A Downtown mall was a serious possibility.
Boiseans pushed back. Spurred by preservationists, they voted in new leadership at City Hall. The city pivoted to preserving Downtown instead of remaking it. Construction of the Boise Towne Square mall began in 1986 on the northwest corner of Cole and Franklin roads, several miles to the west.
Groundbreaking for the Capitol and Bannock garage coincided with the beginning of Downtown’s decline. As strange as it sounds, the Capitol Terrace parking garage — and the buildings that surround it — signaled a revival of Downtown architecture.
How much longer will America’s downtowns need parking garages?
Urban cores are drawing more residents and visitors than they were 35 years ago. But the way people travel to them is changing.
The popularity of ride-hailing services like Uber or Lyft and the advent of self-driving vehicles are revising cities’ parking calculus. Ride-sharing requires no parking. Autonomous cars need a lot less space than parking garages provide, and that space doesn’t need to be close to the people using the cars.
Instead of garages and big surface lots, downtowns will have “much smaller areas configured for pickup and drop-off of autonomous vehicles,” Rich Barone, vice president of the Regional Plan Association of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, told The Pew Charitable Trusts’ Stateline news service for a report titled “Why Downtown Parking Garages May Be Headed for Extinction.”
With this shift looming, it’s understandable if developers are reluctant to build new garages at the cost of perhaps $30,000 per space.
Carley is betting his garage won’t be a money-loser.
“Boise’s going to be a slow adapter,” he said. “So I think my garage has a useful life parking cars in the conventional sense. And they may end up being all electric and lots of autonomous ones. But I think, after 30 years, it is possible that I don’t need a 600-car garage there, I need maybe a 200-car garage there.”
Long term, Boise policies might de-emphasize parking garages, too. Mayor Dave Bieter has long pushed for better public transportation. He is especially keen on rail-based transit.
Better public transportation into and out of Downtown would reduce parking demand, especially for people who work there. But there’s no indication a transit revolution is imminent.
“A lot of things have to fall into place before a significant amount of people are going to be taking something other than their own car into Downtown,” city spokesman Mike Journee said. “The market, at some point, is going to drive that. It’s not necessarily something that’s going to be driven from a policy standpoint. … Right now, the market is for more parking.”
Simmons predicted demand for all kinds of space Downtown could drive up parking costs, leading people who live in the core to ditch their rides altogether.
“If you go to places like Portland and stuff, it’s awfully expensive to keep a car with you Downtown,” he said. “I can see a point where people who live Downtown don’t bring a car with them because it’s like paying a whole second mortgage for your parking space.”