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    A parking garage that won’t be just a parking garage

    Parking was once plentiful on the South Boston Waterfront, as this photo of construction of the federal courthouse on Fan Pier shows; it opened in 1999. But since then, high-rises have been rapidly replacing empty lots.
    David L. Ryan/Globe Staff/File
    Parking was once plentiful on the South Boston Waterfront, as this photo of construction of the federal courthouse on Fan Pier shows; it opened in 1999. But since then, high-rises have been rapidly replacing empty lots.

    The Massachusetts Port Authority has started designing a 1,500-space garage for the South Boston Waterfront.

    Just don’t call it a garage.

    Massport officials recently decided to start calling this project the “Seaport Transportation Center” — a nod to the facility’s broader potential use as a home for Zipcar vehicles and Hubway bikes.

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    The goal, chief executive Thomas Glynn said, is to reflect the wider services that Massport hopes to accommodate at the complex. Along with Zipcar and Hubway, there could be space for Seaport shuttles and information for people walking through the area.

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    The name also acknowledges the fact that the garage, which could stretch from D Street to the World Trade Center Avenue viaduct, would go up next door to an MBTA Silver Line stop.

    “Calling it the Seaport Transportation Center, that really captured more of the ancillary services it can provide,” Glynn said. “We have the opportunity here to do more than just a garage.”

    Construction could begin as soon as this fall, he said, and could be complete by the end of 2017, depending on how long it takes to secure permits. The project could cost as much as $90 million.

    Architect Cheryl Tougias, whose office is in the Fort Point area nearby, said Massport’s efforts underscore a trend that has emerged in the past few years: designing garage complexes that contribute to — rather than detract from — street-level activity and an urban area’s aesthetics.

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    “The days of the plain, precast parking garage in an urban context are probably gone,” Tougias said.

    The Massport garage plan has a long history: It was discussed as far back as the early 1990s, when what was to become the Ted Williams Tunnel was planned for that part of the South Boston Waterfront. The tunnel was built under the 2.6-acre site where Massport is planning the garage.

    At the time, parking in the area was cheap and plentiful. Surface lots abounded.

    But the dynamic changed dramatically in the past five years or so: Most of those lots have been wiped away by the rapid pace of waterfront development, driving demand for a new garage in the area.

    The Boston Redevelopment Authority is also advancing plans for a garage in the city’s marine industrial park nearby, to augment the one that’s there now.

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    Massport currently uses its vacant garage site for valet parking for restaurants at the waterfront Liberty Wharf complex.

    Glynn said Massport will try to ensure the project doesn’t become another “gray cement box.” That could include planning for a cafe off World Trade Center Avenue, for example, or a tourist information center.

    Massport hired Fennick McCredie Architecture last year for the project, and the design work is still under way.

    “We’re trying to do something that’s a little more interesting from a design point of view,” Glynn said, “something we can afford but that at the same time livens up the appearance of the whole district.”

    Jon Chesto can be reached at jon.chesto@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.