Darius Sollohub, director of the New Jersey School of Architecture, served as a design adviser for the Long Island Index’s ParkingPLUS Design Challenge. Sollohub’s research has centered on public transportation and sustainable urban planning. He co-authored Parking Matters: Designing, Operating, and Financing Structured Parking in Smart Growth Communities. We discussed his experience with parking design in the New Jersey suburbs and his reflections on ParkingPLUS in April 2014.
You’ve closely studied the aesthetics and operation of parking in several New Jersey communities. What did your research reveal about parking and downtown revitalization?
Darius Sollohub: Probably the most important lesson is that parking is a serious issue and no one should take it lightly. Any downtown revitalization today will require structured parking. Designers and planners must do their homework to prepare for an extended process. The financing has to work and using proven shared parking models to get the capacity right will help [projects] remain fiscally sustainable. And remember that most citizens dread structured parking; there needs to be a long learning curve to turn fear into an understanding that a garage is a necessity. Perception from the street matters greatly. Well-integrated parking garages must hybridize with other structures and programs to be successful. And they should always strive toward the highest aesthetic possible.
Utile, the firm that designed Civic Arches for ParkingPLUS, makes the case that utilitarian structures should be beautiful. As an architect who specializes in infrastructure planning, what’s your take on this?
Sollohub: A quote I use in my classes is one that Charles Zueblin said in 1905 to describe the Columbian Exposition: “There never was a better demonstration of the fact that proper regard for the utilitarian is the best guarantee of the beautiful.” All utilitarian structures should be beautiful, but that beauty is intricately associated with their use and how we feel about them.
We might ask ourselves the question, why is it that so many communities want to disguise the utilitarian cell phone tower as a fake tree? They fool no one and actually call more attention to them. Or why are there hundreds of parking structures that have false façades that make people initially think they are foreclosed buildings with all the windows broken? There seems to be much cultural confusion about the beauty of the utilitarian.
Accommodating the utilitarian is never easy; it comes down to making the case for why you should celebrate your utilities and not hide them. Utile handled this very well by recognizing the inherent beauty of the adjacent Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) viaduct and migrating that feeling into the street-level spaces in and around their garages without any form of mimicry. It makes a compelling argument for those spaces.
On a spectrum between pragmatic and visionary, where do you think the ParkingPLUS designs fall?
Sollohub: I’d say 3 of the 4 trend toward being visionary, but that’s okay. An exercise like this needs to set a high bar for others to emulate. And when I say visionary, I don’t mean futurist. All the projects are eminently buildable and the design quality of each is very high; I just think that overall, cost may exceed expectation and some have a scale too daunting for a suburban community to pull off, but that doesn’t mean that enlightened leadership or a well-funded private partner couldn’t make it happen.
The most pragmatic project is the Patchogue Brackets. It’s a ground-up initiative that maximizes the use of existing assets and requires modest up-front expenditures. It could start incrementally, and through the use of technology, it could go viral by mobilizing local stakeholders. It’s smart, technologically cool, and affordable in a way that a community can rally around immediately.
So the ParkingPLUS designs are realizable?
Sollohub: Yes. The two biggest issues will be rallying community support and funding. As conceived, each project (with the exception of Ronkonkoma) will require a cost premium over a typical developer-driven project and will need a champion to argue why it is worth it. Most municipal leaders have come around to believe that structured parking is essential to the future of their communities, but what they may not know is that a badly designed garage can actually inhibit that future. There are plenty of examples of poorly integrated garages that have lowered property values. Yes, you pay a premium for good design, but it is well worth the risk. Someone needs to make this case to anyone who will listen until you get the project built the way it should be.
The ParkingPLUS proposals are all about reducing the need to drive, which seems ironic until you really dive into the proposals. How can a parking structure boost transit ridership and reduce driving?
Sollohub: Much about parking garages is ironic or even oxymoronic. For example, can a parking garage that supports carbon-emitting cars possibly be sustainable? Well, if structured parking leads to higher density, pedestrian-oriented development where people can leave their cars at home and walk to transit, then the answer is “yes.” As early as 1948, the Eno Center for Transportation recognized that 30 percent of downtown traffic was attributable to drivers looking for parking. By going directly to a garage, you take those cars off the street and emissions out of the air. And because garages take some time to get in and out of, they naturally cause drivers to practice a “park once” pattern and walk more. In fact, parking garages form Transit-Oriented Development (TOD) patterns of their own even without a transit stop nearby. In New Jersey, take a look at recent development in downtown Montclair or Princeton.
You’ve worked in private practice, including as principal of your own firm and also at Polshek Partnership Architects (now known as Ennead Architects). Polshek is known for “important projects that have caught the public’s eye”—spectacular designs that are also substantive and meet the needs of clients. Can the lowly parking garage be spectacularly designed? Can these structures meet the needs of the communities where they’re built?
Sollohub: The long horizontal bar to the west of Polshek’s Rose Planetarium is actually a big parking structure for buses. It’s woven into the circulation system for big school groups to come to the museum. It’s part of the ensemble that makes the Rose Planetarium successful. The garage that has now set the bar for “spectacular” is Herzog & de Meuron’s 1111 Lincoln Road in Miami Beach. It’s a beautiful building that is completely hybridized with retail, restaurants, and even the developer’s residence. The question is how relevant is 1111 Lincoln Road to a suburban community seeking to build structured parking? To build the 300 parking spaces it holds on Long Island today would cost about $6 million; the Miami garage cost $65 million! Do you really need to spend 10 times as much to make it spectacular? I don’t think so. Take a look at the Santa Monica Civic Center garage. I think it’s spectacular, it’s LEED-rated, and it cost half the amount for 3 times the number of parking spaces.
Perhaps the most important part of the ParkingPLUS Design Challenge was the PLUS piece—the emphasis on the other uses that parking structures can incorporate, beyond parking. Which PLUSes from the design proposals appeal to you most?
Sollohub: I think the need to hybridize through some sort of PLUS piece is essential. The unadorned parking garage can be a monster. Architectural Record wrote that “in the Pantheon of Building Types, the parking garage lurks somewhere in the vicinity of prisons and toll plazas.” But to disguise it is almost worse in my mind than leaving it plain vanilla. To make [the garage] an essential part of an urban environment requires a degree of design attitude that responds to the site. That’s why some might think the project that I enjoy the most is the nuttiest: the Ronkonkoma Horizontal Skyscraper. It applies the Manhattanism of Rem Koolhaas’s Delirious New York, and by laying the full-scale form of the Empire State Building on its side, makes a tongue-in-cheek reference to the city. It’s a commuter rail stop that goes way beyond highway architecture to hyper-scale up and become airport architecture, something you understand from 10,000 feet. It’s a TOD on the scale of a theme park like Koolhaas’s beloved Coney Island—which I would love to see someone pony up and build.
Which of the ParkingPLUS designs do you find to be most innovative?
Sollohub: All the projects innovate to a very high level. If built, the Westbury Train Terraces by LTL would offer some of the more beautiful sequences of spaces in all the proposals. Theirs is a complete urban design vision scaled as megastructure, one that blends the highest variety of uses: different forms of retail and residences, public spaces, and integration of multiple transportation modes. LTL designed it with conviction in a manner fully considered. We used to think on this scale 50 years ago. I hope that with coming generations we will be able to do so again.
Which ideas from ParkingPLUS have the greatest potential to change the future of Long Island and other suburbs?
Sollohub: From a design standpoint, the PLUS is critical. Every parking structure can benefit from some form of hybridization and generally, the more the better. To design a parking structure is not simply an architectural matter. In an urban environment, it is a significant insertion into a delicately balanced condition that must take into consideration its surroundings in the fullest sense. What I enjoyed most about seeing the projects was how each design team assembled a logical foundation that allowed them to really think expansively while still staying tethered to reality. The leadership required to build well-designed structured parking will need ideas as exciting as the ones developed [in ParkingPLUS] to rally around. Great ideas have a habit of finding the resources to make them happen.
You work with students every day in your role as director of the New Jersey School of Architecture. How do suburbs need to change if they want to stay relevant to the next generation?
Sollohub: Everyone likes to bash suburbs. Yes, there is a lot that’s bad about them, but I wouldn’t go as far as Vishaan Chakrabarti, who recently lectured at NJIT and told us that he fears no one will want to live in suburbs soon and they will devolve into the new low-income slums. The problem many see in suburbs is their seeming homogeneity, but there is often more there than meets the eye. We always encourage our students to look deep. My faculty colleague, Georgeen Theodore, who runs our Infrastructure Planning Program, is a huge proponent of “mapping,” a process that seeks to reveal the inner, often secret, workings of a place. This is the best way to keep suburbs relevant: find out what’s really there before passing judgment. Georgeen’s studio has identified the “ethnoburbs” of New Jersey, places like Edison, where on Oak Tree Road you can get the best curry this side of Delhi. Good food always makes places relevant.
Interview has been condensed and edited.