Opinion

PAUL MCMORROW

Putting cars in their place

Boston has made huge steps in recent years in reforming its relationship with the automobile. Downtown Boston’s thirst for parking once drove a host of unworthy regional initiatives, from the construction of massive above-ground parking structures in the city’s core to the destruction that preceded a failed series of urban highway arteries. Lately, though, Boston has succeeded in putting cars in their place. The city is encouraging developers to tear down hulking urban renewal-era garages, slashing parking quotas for new developments, and embracing car- and bike-sharing.

If the suburbs and smaller cities surrounding Boston are going to have the space they need to grow, they too need to rethink the way they encounter cars. But for the majority of these suburbs and cities, Boston’s new approach to cars has its limits. It’s not realistic to expect places like Winchester, Natick, and Lowell to model their parking policies on downtown Boston.

If these outlying localities are smart, they’ll take inspiration from Boston’s downtown. But for execution, they should be looking to New York’s Long Island.

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Long Island’s entanglement with the automobile is notorious. It also doesn’t feel all that different from the reality that many Boston suburbs face. Both regions enjoy rail transit, but have let cars define their development patterns. In both places, a vibrant future depends on attracting and retaining young families, and that means making the suburbs feel more like cities. It means creating denser, amenity-rich town centers, and finding room to grow upward, instead of sprawling outward.

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Suburban modernization means taming parking. These towns can’t realistically go car-free, but they don’t have to. They just have to reinvent the way they approach parking. They have to invest in parking garages, not just as concrete boxes that hold cars, but as tools for unlocking development and tightening the urban fabric.

The Boston architecture firm Utile is currently at work in Long Island, reinventing the parking garage. A national competition by the Long Island Index, a nonprofit research organization, paired Utile with Rockville Center, a suburb just beyond JFK Airport. Rockville has a downtown centered on a commuter rail line, but it’s a downtown oriented around surface parking lots, not sidewalks and city blocks.

Utile has designed a prototype garage for Rockville that would replace the surface parking lots, enabling greater density downtown, while building tighter, healthier city block patterns. The firm is now working with Rockville and the Long Island Rail Road to take its new garage design vertical. Utile is also working on the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center’s expansion, and looking to fold lessons it learned on Long Island into the South Boston convention facility.

Utile’s Rockville design embraces a modular, flexible approach. It’s able to be topped with housing or office space. Unusually high first-floor ceilings allow retailers to populate street edges, while a series of grand arches allows the ground floor to transform into an open-air arcade during off-peak hours. The garage isn’t a single-use building; it’s able to park cars during the week, and host food trucks and farm stands on the weekend.

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The Rockville example shows that neighborhoods like South Boston and cities like Quincy can walk a progressive line on parking. They don’t have to jettison parking altogether, because commuters and neighborhood retailers depend on it, but they also don’t have to settle for parking as they’ve known it. They can use flexibility and creativity to urbanize parking, and bend it to a human scale.

Tim Love, Utile’s founding principal, sees a lesson in the marketplace underneath Manhattan’s Queensboro Bridge, and the storefronts that pop up below elevated train tracks in Europe: If a piece of infrastructure is built well, it will attract people. “Once garages are out of the ground,” he argues, “they have a responsibility to be well-designed, just like any other building. They’re not a public utility. They’re public buildings.”

Paul McMorrow is an associate editor at Commonwealth Magazine. His column appears regularly in the Globe.