Utile Inc. Architecture + Planning

A first step toward retrofitting the suburbs.

In the incremental business of retrofitting suburbia, it’s helpful to think of the lungfish.

Back in the day a few million years ago, the eel-like creature sprouted limbs and emerged from the surf for forays on the beach, before returning again to the water. Later, tetrapods equipped themselves to make land roving a steadier habit, and the rest is evolutionary history. The transition from the ocean to land, ultimately leading to humankind, didn’t happen all at once.

So it is that the Rauch Foundation, a nonprofit trying to foster innovation in Long Island, looked at the 4,000 acres of surface parking in a dozen or so villages anchored by Long Island Railroad train stations, and hoped to spark a slow-and-steady transformation to transit-oriented development.

The foundation and its Long Island Index, an initiative to publish data to inform policymaking in the region, last year launched a design competition for parking garages in four targeted downtowns: Ronkonkoma, Patchogue, Westbury, and Rockville Centre. Parking lots might not seem the sexiest of architectural endeavors, but the goal here was to reimagine surface parking as structured parking, thereby freeing up land near the train stations for future urban-style development.

Getting rid of the parking entirely was not a viable option. There are many variations, but Long Island Railroad stations were essentially based on the park-and-ride model. Historically, commuters drove from single-family subdivisions like Levittown, parked and took the train into New York City.

"It's unrealistic that we are going to move immediately to not needing a car," says Ann Golob, director of the Long Island Index. "In time this may change … but we’re not there yet."

Plaza view of the Rockville Centre design. In this garage, non-parking possibilities are built into the design. (Utile Inc. Architecture + Planning)

Several communities in Long Island have indeed already seen the beginning of a shift from the suburban framework to something new. Their parents escaped Brooklyn and Queens, but many young people in the region want nothing more than to be right back in the city, where the action is. No one is thinking that Patchogue could be the next Williamsburg, but in theory, the villages of Nassau and Suffolk counties could provide an affordable alternative, with access to transit and an urbanity all its own.

Building structured parking is thus seen as an intermediary step in that process. In the ParkingPLUS Design Challenge, architectural firms were asked to be creative in their designs, to conjure places that would not simply store the cars, but open up new possibilities for public use of the space. Roger Sherman Architecture + Urban Design envisioned a "horizontal skyscraper" relating to Main Street in Ronkonkoma; dub Studios submitted a shared parking scheme in Patchogue; LTL Architects rendered a parking garage with a landscaped terraced rooftop cascading towards the rail line in Westbury.

In an interesting twist and a nod to the evolutionary, the parking garage submitted by Boston-based Utile Inc. for Rockville Centre was inspired by WPA-era projects as a piece of flexible urban infrastructure, with future non-parking related uses built into the design, through the floor plates, structural columns and even the taller ceiling height of the parking levels. “In the future, somebody can come along and do something else with it, just like the Starrett-Lehigh complex (in Manhattan) or a loft building in SoHo,” says principal Tim Love.

That's a long way from the simplistic "Texas wrap," a term often applied to the slapping on of retail or office space around the ground floor of structured parking. Nor can every site have underground parking, which is very expensive, for builders and the motoring public. June Williamson, associate professor of architecture at the City College of New York, co-author of Retrofitting Suburbia, and a consultant to the ParkingPLUS process, says the Long Island designs challenge fundamental stereotypes about everyday infrastructure. Parking is an essential component of the suburban landscape, but it is being rethought just about everywhere, she says.

The next steps are for local government leaders to review the designs and plot out possible funding. Hard-core advocates of transit-oriented development may want things to change faster. Tougher-love approaches to parking can include eliminating parking minimums for developments near transit, or generally making the use of cars expensive and difficult. But it’s an ongoing calibration, and by definition one that must consider social equity, as seen in the uproar over Michael Bloomberg’s proposal for congestion pricing south of 86th Street in Manhattan.

Retrofitting suburbia is no small challenge. The polycentric downtowns on Long Island have their work cut out for them, because there isn't much available land — except for the parking lots. While I was initially skeptical, this design competition for parking garages appropriately reflects how places like these will likely end up evolving, and indeed how the passing of years and even decades is a frequently forgotten element in planning and design. There are instant classics, to be sure, but authentic urban areas are always built in stages, one step at a time.

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