Emily Badger is a former staff writer at CityLab. Her work has previously appeared in Pacific Standard, GOOD, The Christian Science Monitor, and The New York Times. She lives in the Washington, D.C. area.
A proposed development in the city underscores the tradeoffs and design challenges of building cities around the car.
The architect Sebastian Mariscal begins his plans for any future project with the same question, one that has little to do with the aesthetics of a building or the experience of the people who will one day use it. "When I design a building,” he says, "the first thing I have to resolve is my parking." He means, by this, that he must weigh requirements in most city codes mandating a specific ratio of off-street parking spaces for each new unit of housing or office space.
"Every developer and every architect starts the process like that,” Mariscal laments. "'If I can put in 40 cars, then I can do 40 units.'"
The rest of a building then takes shape from there. Mariscal has recently been working on plans for an 18,000 square-foot lot in the Allston neighborhood of Boston that had been, until now, a surface parking lot with a used car dealership. Mariscal wants to construct a mixed-use building with 44 residential units and retail on the ground floor. Parking requirements, as they currently exist in the area, give him two options: He can condense the building onto part of the lot, paving the rest for surface parking (this option leaves no room for patios, porches or green space). Or he can build an underground parking structure on the entire footprint of the land, and put the building on top of it (again, no green space).
Mariscal is explicitly attempting to build a green development, and so neither of these options looks like a good one. His solution? Design an apartment complex with no parking – where tenants would sign away the right to own cars, in fact – and then convince the city to let him build it.
He is hoping to change not only the prospects for this one piece of land, but also how its neighbors and Bostonians more broadly think about cars in their midst. His proposal also highlights the hidden reality – true in cities everywhere – that our modern buildings largely take their first architectural cues from cars.
“When you remove the car component as the main design challenge," Mariscal says, "your way of thinking about design is completely different. The possibilities that open for a more environmentally friendly and human design – they are endless."
The planned project is located here (marked by a red balloon) in this heavily paved-over neighborhood:
Mariscal’s studio studied aerial images of the neighborhood in an attempt to quantify its existing green space. In this map, all of the gray areas represent above-ground parking lots (again, the proposed development is marked in red):
Clearly, the neighborhood devotes more real estate to the car than to greenery (this map is also a conservative estimation of parking – underground lots aren’t shown). Mariscal is hoping to develop a property that would strike the opposite balance. His 44-unit, five-story complex would come with a central community courtyard accessible to the entire neighborhood, as well as a 12-by-12 foot private garden for each unit.
“It’s not a building like any other with no parking,” Mariscal says. “It has a lot of other benefits that come from the no parking. That’s what makes the proposal interesting.”
The plan for the building layers green space throughout every floor – and on the roof – to create 18,000 total square feet of garden, or the equivalent of turning the entire lot into a park.
The design assumes that bikers and pedestrians from anywhere in the neighborhood would be able to pass through the building’s open walkways and courtyard. String together enough buildings like this, Mariscal says, and the community could create a secondary grid to the street network for people traveling by foot or bike.
Data on the five census tracts around the property suggest that 45 percent of renter households in the area currently own no car, and Mariscal is confident he’d have no trouble finding tenants. But he’s planning to have them sign no-car addendums to their leases anyway to calm the proposal's critics.
Mariscal trusts his would-be tenants, but he suspects that the neighbors won’t. And if he is planning – controversially – to build zero new parking with his development, the least he can do is guarantee the community that his renters won’t crowd out their cars. This is, after all, why parking minimum requirements were created in the first place: to ease the burden on the existing street network from the arrival of fresh demand in new developments. (Mariscal's building would, however, offer two bike parking spots per unit.)
The blunt way to frame this whole idea is that it is not precisely legal, at least under existing regulation.
"I would use a different word," Mariscal says. “What I want to do requires a variance.” And to get one he must go through myriad hearings and community meetings to obtain special permission from, first, the Boston Redevelopment Authority. Mariscal has already been at the process for nine months, and he figures he has a few more to go. If the final decision falls in his favor, he hopes to start construction in February of next year.
From his point of view as an architect and developer, he’s trying to take some of the responsibility off of the city government to ease the region’s traffic problems. As long as developers keep building new units with new parking spaces, the cars will keep coming. But if they design more properties like the one Mariscal has in mind, that might not only start to ease congestion. It would create awareness within the city of the needs of people who don’t own cars. "The community of the car is very evident because of traffic,” Mariscal says. If the community of no-cars became more visible through residences like this one, maybe other policies in their favor would follow.
Ultimately, the goal wouldn't be to create a segregated city with properties reserved for people who’ve legally sworn off cars. Rather, it would be nice if Mariscal could develop such a building in the future without having to require its tenants to swear they'll never own one.
All images courtesy of Sebastian Mariscal Studio.