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Paul McMorrow

How to make parking garages in Boston obsolete

The parking garage in front of the New England Aquarium as seen from the Greenway in this June 2, 2010 file photo.

Yoon S. Byun/Globe Staff/File

The parking garage in front of the New England Aquarium as seen from the Greenway in this June 2, 2010 file photo.

Parking garages occupy some of the most prominent real estate in Boston. But they generally don’t get demolished, even when they sit on prime development parcels, because they’re too valuable to tear down. The key to redeveloping the structures is to make them less valuable.

The value that keeps garages standing isn’t intrinsic. It flows from transportation policies that inflate the price of parking. The fastest way of speeding Boston garages’ downfall, and putting valuable land back into active use, is by living up to the decades-old deal that was supposed to underpin the Big Dig.

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The policy justifying the Central Artery removal was air pollution reduction. Cars crawling along the traffic-choked Artery released gobs of pollutants; burying the Artery and easing crushing rush-hour commutes cut the number of hours cars spent on the road, reducing the air pollutants attributable to each automobile.

This calculus only holds so long as faster-running roads don’t attract new traffic that returns them to their congested, pre-construction state. And the history of urban highway construction, from the aggressive New York road builder Robert Moses onward, is one of increased road capacity being overwhelmed by new demand. Cities have shown no ability to build their way out of traffic headaches. So the architects of the Big Dig committed to building a transportation system that discouraged a surge in new cars.

The Big Dig traffic strategy called for handcuffing Boston’s ability to welcome a surge in new cars, and shifting commuters onto public transportation. The economics of redeveloping Boston garages has been thrown upside-down because only the first half of the strategy was ever put into place.

In the mid-1970s, as Boston officials were building the political case for depressing the Central Artery, the city committed to freezing its supply of commercial parking spaces. When developers replace public parking garages with new buildings, the spaces go into the city’s parking freeze bank; developers can only build new public parking spaces if they’re available in the bank, and the city’s supply of public parking spaces can never increase over the 1970s freeze level.

The anti-air pollution parking freeze only works if commuting demand shifts from automobiles to other modes of transportation. That’s why the Big Dig came paired with a host of mass transit commitments.

Some of those transit commitments, like expanded commuter rail lines, better Blue Line service, and the Silver Line to the Seaport, are already in place. Expansive projects like Green Line service to Somerville and Medford, and a tunnel connecting the Blue and Red Lines, have been repeatedly delayed.

The spirit behind the Big Dig transit commitments, that public policy should lessen the region’s reliance on the automobile, is just as important as any punch list of individual transit projects. The MBTA is now struggling to meet the basic costs of keeping its transit system running, and because the state has failed to match its investments in roadways with equally ambitious investments in mass transit, Boston remains far more dependent on car traffic than the Big Dig’s architects anticipated.

There’s a direct line running from post-Big Dig transit failures to the outlandish values attached to parking structures that only exist because they’re too valuable to tear down. Broken transit promises, when paired with the downtown parking freeze, have inflated the value of parking structures and created incentives to keep garages in place.

At the Government Center and Aquarium garages, developers have tried to overcome soaring parking prices by proposing mammoth commercial projects because they need significant density to recapture the revenue they’re now getting from their garages. But mega-projects aren’t easy to put together. The Aquarium Garage redevelopment has met stiff regulatory resistance, while the Government Center Garage is staring into an inhospitable market. Both projects would be much more manageable if they could afford to be smaller. And they could be smaller — if their redevelopment schemes were replacing less valuable garages.

In the coming months, state lawmakers will begin exploring ways to shore up the MBTA’s long-term finances. They should start with a stiff surcharge on downtown garage parking. The new fee wouldn’t drastically raise overall parking rates, since the garages are now immensely profitable, and owners could easily allow their own revenues to float downward. But a meaningful parking fee earmarked for transit would go a long way toward making the garages less lucrative and easier to tear down, while also funding the transit infrastructure making the garages obsolete.

Paul McMorrow is an associate editor at CommonWealth magazine. His column appears regularly in the Globe.
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