Most of us are introduced to architecture through driveways, parking lots or garages. Some enter their homes through heated locks, safely closing the overhead door behind, and moving through the laundry room and kitchen to the living spaces. Those who don't have the amenity of an attached garage often leave their cars in an adjacent driveway or yard, with easy access to the front door.
In many large and/or smart cities, people can move from their homes to places of work, entertainment and shopping by convenient and affordable mass transportation systems, but in small and medium-size cities like Knoxville, the automobile remains, at least for the present, the preferred means of getting from here to there. An integral part of the American Dream, the car, as it has come to be known, is an indispensable artifact, synonymous with the freedom to cruise, roam, shop, visit or do the myriad other chores that establish one's so-called independence. Some drive well into their eighties or even nineties, and equate the end of driving with the end of life itself. For many, an alternative can't even be imagined.
Most large in-town public and private buildings - city and county offices, banks, libraries, concert halls, hospitals and the like - are built with adjacent parking structures that enable users to make their ways directly from their cars to their destinations. Parking in these structures is often free upon validation of a ticket, as it well should be when they are built using public funds to ostensibly serve the public interest. Parking has not only become one of the common services provided by private companies and government in a modern central business district: for many municipalities and counties, it is itself a big business.
The experience of moving from the car to the building should be safe and intelligible. Safe means not being hit, as a pedestrian or driver, by other vehicles. It implies freedom from unwelcome encounters in elevators and stairs; and a physically comfortable environment (warm or cool) in any season and time of day. Intelligible means that it should be obvious how to get to where you are going and back. That can be accomplished by good planning, careful lighting and legible, logical signage.
Urban parking garages have been around as long as the motorized vehicle itself. In the beginning, these structures were simple utilitarian boxes usually built of poured concrete to insure fire safety and containing an internal ramp system or freight elevator that connected floors. No attempt was made to prettify the structures: their 'beauty' derives from their functionality. Early examples in downtown Knoxville include the garage built adjacent to and serving The Pembroke (originally the New Sprankle Building) and the Pryor-Brown garage on Church Avenue. Both have windows that insulate the interior from weather extremes; Pryor-Brown includes shops and offices at the street level which add to its human scale and provide a visual contrast to the plain architecture on the floors above.
More modern iterations like the Public Building Authority's Locust Street and Market Square garages, owned jointly by the city and county, are attempts to make this building-type more friendly - visually, at least - with facade treatments of multicolored brick and steel that suggest residential rather than automobile scale. The Locust Street garage became the first new parking structure in downtown to incorporate retail and commercial uses at the street level, including the popular new home of Pete's Restaurant, (displaced by the demolition of the Old Sprankle) and other small shops. Unfortunately, the Market Square garage has no retail use at all at its ground floor level, turning Walnut Street, between Union and Wall, into a particularly mean place.
Inside, both garages fulfill their functional requirements fairly well, with the Locust Street building having the slight edge in aesthetic appeal and ease of use. While cool in the summer, both are deadly cold in the winter, a condition that could have been alleviated by the installation of glazing (as in the older garages) or a simple industrial heating system. The high cost of parking in either of the structures obviates the need for affordable parking for working people wanting or needing to drive their own vehicles into downtown for their employment. While lawyers, real estate entrepreneurs or engineers are not likely to wince at the $7.00/day (or $4.00/day corporate) rates, such costs become burdensome for low-wage workers. Citizens should be encouraged to use public transportation to reach downtown, yet public facilities built with public funds should be equally accessible to everyone, whether through subsidies or the designation of a certain number of parking spots for those at the lower end of the income spectrum.
Once outside downtown, the mobile Knoxvillian is unlikely to encounter garages at all because land values are still low enough to permit expansive on-grade parking lots. These vary considerably in quality of entry/exit, comprehensibility, shading, signage, easy of access to destination, landscaping, lighting and detailing. While architects are required by law to be familiar with the principles of good parking lot design, the design itself is often left to consultants who tend to favor image, basic functionality (parking space width, turning radii, provisions for the disabled) and economy over comfort, convenience for both pedestrian and driver (who most often are the same person using the facility at different times), and aesthetics.
There are no physical artifacts or landscapes encountered in one's daily routine more ubiquitous than these parking lots; asked to list one's favorites, a driver wouldn't hesitate for a moment. While I occasionally venture out along the strips radiating from the center of town, most of my shopping occurs within a few miles of my home. The most pleasant of the medium-size shopping centers I frequent is Western Plaza, situated at the eastern end of Kingston Pike at the edge of the Sequoia Hills neighborhood. Once a rather ordinary (and dreary) L-shaped strip of connected shops, the Plaza was redesigned fifteen years ago with the addition of a roofed walkway or arcade offering pedestrians practical protection from sun and rain as they move from one shop to another. At the same time the architecture was enhanced, the parking was reconfigured into a pleasant lot with a clearly marked entry, several stop signs, and a clear circulation pattern. The main entrance, located at a traffic light (as it should be), leads to a series of parking areas that run perpendicular to the shops. These areas are separated by planted islands whose trees provide shading for vehicles in the summer and some scale and visual relief in the winter. Getting in and out of these smaller parking areas - and the shopping center itself - is always easy and safe.
Down the pike a half-mile from Western Plaza, however, is one of the most chaotic parking lots in the city: Knox Plaza, home to the Kroger's grocery that serves the inner suburbs west of downtown. When this busy store was being renovated nearly a decade ago, there was hope that the parking lot would be reconsidered as well. As it turned out, the lot is even worse now, with an incoherent traffic pattern and entries and exits (especially those near the out-parcel Starbucks coffee house) that are one-way, wrong-way, or no-way. One has to wonder who is designing these ill-conceived lots and who in the city is approving them.
An urban landscape predicated on the automobile and cheap fossil fuel may be problematic and, in the long run, unsustainable, but we can at least demand modest standards that mitigate the effects of its proliferation. Even the most ordinary places can be friendly and comfortable, and we should ask the developers, owners, architects, engineers and city officials who initiate, then design and approve them, to ensure this.
©2007 Michael Kaplan. This article originally appeared in the Knoxville Voice.