Parking garages rarely provoke much nostalgia, and when a Virginia suburb approved a plan to demolish the one where Bob Woodward met with Deep Throat, almost no one but journalists cared. The structure in Rosslyn, just across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C., played a unique role in US history, hosting Woodward’s clandestine meetings with his secret source, who decades later was revealed to be FBI official Mark Felt. The information Woodward received at spot 32D and published in The Washington Post helped drive President Richard Nixon from office. But even if Watergate sites don’t excite preservationists, they may soon want to spare a thought for parking garages: Changes in the way we use cars may soon make them obsolete — or at least much less central to American life.
By the early 1970s, parking garages had assumed a unique dual role — after dark, they were noirish, undersupervised places, perfect for clandestine meetings; by day, they were dull, utilitarian structures that commuters used without thinking twice about it. It seems inconceivable that a fixture as common as parking garages would disappear, but past generations likely said the same thing about, say, open sewers. Giant garages only came to exist because most people use cars inefficiently, leaving them idle for much of the day. But technological innovations are beginning to change that. Car ownership rates are declining . Current trends point toward fewer cars on the road, heavier use of the ones remaining, and less overall demand for spaces.
Already there are signs that car-sharing and similar services have reduced parking demand. The Boston Redevelopment Authority has relaxed requirements for parking spaces in some new developments, citing a 14 percent drop in vehicle registrations since 2008. Indeed, in Rosslyn, there are no plans to replace the garage that Woodward made famous; a developer plans to build a residential tower and commercial space on the site instead.
For now, Virginia should make an effort to document the historic garage for posterity — perhaps with the 3-D interior-imaging devices now beginning to appear. But at some point, a parking garage here and there may need to be preserved. Otherwise, Americans of the future may never believe that such buildings took up so much prime real estate — or that one of them could play a starring role in 20th-century history.