Should garages have retail and commercial appeal?

Under the proposed new zoning code, parking garages must be built to encourage retail, commercial or some other active use at street level.

But the code would only require things like stores or offices on the ground floor when the garage fronts certain Center City streets, or when the garage is in a transit-oriented development zone.

The issue was raised at a presentation during the recent AIA Design on the Delaware Conference by Terra Studio principal architect and urban designer Timothy Kerner, who is also the zoning chair of the Center City Residents Association. Kerner spoke about ways to mitigate the impact parking has on the quality of life in Philadelphia. His co-presenter, Philadelphia’s Deputy Commissioner for Transportation, Stephen Buckley, spoke about ways the city is trying to lessen congestion and otherwise balance the necessity of cars with a good city experience for pedestrians and cyclists.

“Unfortunately, the car is not going away anytime soon,” Kerner said. “We could wish for it, but it is very much part of American life.”

Parking garages interrupt street life, Kerner said, because they frequently present an “uninhabited facade” on the street, are out of scale, are unattractive, and have driveways that disrupt the path of pedestrians.

The best way to deal with these problems is to put garages underground, Kerner said. But short of that, there needs to be retail or commercial space on the first floor. “It is absolutely essential that any garage in the city needs to have retail or commercial uses on the first floor,” he said.

“The proposed zoning code, as of yet, does not have this provision,” he said. “So write to your zoning code commissioner!”

Active street level uses are a very good thing, said Zoning Code Commission Executive Director Eva Gladstein in a recent interview. That’s why the proposed new code requires garages to have an active use at street level in key areas. But to require retail or other active uses city-wide could result in vacant storefronts, which are detrimental to a street, she said. That’s why the code seeks balance.

As stated in Section 14-702 (13), the proposed code requires that any portion of the ground floor facade of a detached garage that abuts a sidewalk or public space, with the exception of areas that are entrances, exits or waiting areas, must be built with a minimum ceiling height of 8 feet “in order to allow occupancy by office, retail, commercial, public, civic and institutional uses.”

In other words, there has to be enough space for such a use.

But that same space must be occupied by “office, retail, commercial or public/civic/institutional uses” if the garage has frontage on Market, Chestnut or Walnut streets or JFK boulevard, according to the Center City Overlay, Section 14-402 (6)(f) of the new code.

And active ground floor uses, including retail, commercial, hotels, theater lobbies, entrances to transit stations and restaurants, are required of accessory and non-accessory garages under the Transit Oriented Development Standards, Section 14-605 (10)(b).

“As you can see, this approach is calibrated to require wrapping of garages in high density locations, and to encourage wrapping of garages in other commercial districts,” Gladstein wrote in an email.

Kerner doesn’t think it goes far enough. Active uses “should be required in all areas of city on commercial corridor frontages,” he said in a recent interview, echoing the comments the Center City Residents Association sent to the Zoning Code Commission. Written comments are being accepted until Nov.12 (today!).  “We are waiting for a response,” Kerner said.

In Center City, Kerner said, it is hard for him to imagine any garage built on primary or even secondary streets that wouldn’t be better with ground-level activity.

During his AIA presentation, Kerner spoke of other ways in which parking garages and other forms of parking could be improved.

Garage driveways should be limited, and the sidewalks in front of them should be marked to show both drivers and pedestrians that pedestrians have the right of way, he said.

He praised the new code for its requirement that garages have bicycle racks.

Kerner showed examples of some garages that he thinks have been done well. At Broad Street’s Symphony House, the cars are parked above ground, he said, but you can’t tell from the street. The facade’s windows hide the fact that there is a garage behind them, he said. “It makes a big difference.”

He showed a photo of a garage at Penn that he said was built 20 years ago, with a pledge that the surface lot in front of it would contain a building with an active use. It’s still a surface lot.

Kerner also suggested ways in which surface lots and street parking could be improved. He noted that the new zoning code would require homes to have residential space at street level, and in the typical rowhouse, it would be hard to accommodate both that and a garage.

Deputy Commissioner for Transportation Buckley said the city’s transportation focus has shifted away from simply accommodating cars to balancing the needs of walkers, bikers, drivers and transit users.

There are people who think banning cars from the city would be a great way to deal with them, he said, but he is not among them.

How people and cars can co-exist

Cars have some upsides, he said. “They bring customers to market. We want people to come to our Center City. We want them to come down here and dine, and go see theater,” he said. And for some, bikes and transit are just not an option.

But, Buckley said, cars present safety issues for pedestrians. And a large percentage of city land is used to accommodate them. Too many cars bring congestion – a problem he and others in streets and transportation have been combating.

A New York City study showed that 30 percent of the vehicles on the street at any given time are circling in search of parking, Buckley said. Philadelphia has not done a study, but has had similar problems, he said.

“Particularly in Center City, we have high demand, and low vacancy for on-street parking,” he said.

Prior to summer of 2009, parking on the street cost $1 per hour, which translated into $8 for a work day. That was cheaper, Buckley said, than even the early bird rate at many parking garages. So street parking – ideally used short term by people who were in town for an appointment or lunch – was being used by office workers who fed the meters.

Another contributer to congestion was illegal parking, often by delivery vehicles double parked in the street to deliver to a business, he said.

Working with the parking authority, the department of transportation took a multi-pronged approach, he said.

In Center City, on-street parking rates were increased to $2 per hour, which he said is still less than most other major cities.

The new, multi-space meters were installed, allowing for many changes, Buckley said.

With the old school meters, each space was 25-feet long, but not every car needs that much space to park. Just this change increased the supply of parking spaces by 10 to 15 percent, he said.

The meters also are programmable, so that the time limit on a parking space can be changed based on the time of day, he said. And the cost can also vary by time of day.

Loading zones were expanded, but these spaces now change use. Between 6 and 10 am, the spots are reserved for zoning, Buckley said. But after that, the spaces revert to regular parking. Using the spots as zoning zones until 10 also meant that office workers can’t park in those spaces for the entire workday, he said.

Preliminary findings show that congestion has been reduced, Buckley said. SEPTA reports its bus trips across town are taking two- to three-minutes less time, he said. And on-street parking vacancy has risen from 1 or 2 percent to 10 to 12 percent. “We are doing new studies now to show if the results have held up,” he said.

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