In an article last week, Post reporter Katherine Shaver suggests that the prevalence of structured parking in Montgomery County signals a “cultural shift” and an “urban turn” for what many claim is the “perfect suburbia.”

What’s missing, however, is that the rise of underground garages means we can still accommodate drivers while making room for other things, including more and higher-quality open spaces.

New Transit Village

North Bethesda Market under construction. Photo by DearEdward on Flickr.

When I used to work at an ice-cream parlor in Rockville Town Square, I’d get phone calls from customers with questions. One thing always seemed to upset my callers: it wasn’t about the cost of ice cream, or what flavors we did or didn’t have in stock, or even that you had to pay to park there. It was that the only parking came in an underground garage behind the store.

“You mean I have to park in a garage?” they’d ask. “I hate parking garages, and I don’t want to shop anywhere where I have to use one.”

I don’t know how many customers this deterred, but I’m not surprised that people are unhappy parking in a garage to shop at the new Whole Foods in North Bethesda Market. This new development along Rockville Pike in White Flint also contains the tallest apartment building in Montgomery County.

Those used to the vast, free parking lots outside Whole Foods’ former location in Congressional Plaza, a few miles away, probably aren’t happy about going down a steep ramp and paying $1.50 an hour to store their car. Not only that, but I went there a couple of weeks ago and found the garage crowded and difficult to navigate, though this may be partially due to construction of the still-unfinished shopping center.

Structured parking has been a fact of life in Montgomery County for decades. Silver Spring, Singular found this 1970’s-era ad for Bethlehem Steel showing a then-new garage on Ellsworth Drive. There are parking garages, with aboveground and underground portions, in the downtowns of Silver Spring, Bethesda, Rockville and Wheaton. Across Rockville Pike from North Bethesda Market is White Flint Mall, which has had parking garages since it opened almost forty years ago.

I like parking garages because they can keep my car cool in the summer and dry when it rains or snows. However, a poorly designed and poorly lit garage can feel really uncomfortable. They can also give a lousy first impression to people going from their car to a shop, office or apartment building. Underground garages can also make users feel unsafe. When a developer proposed replacing a public parking lot in downtown Silver Spring with a garage to make room for other uses, one neighbor worried it would be a draw for crime.

One way to alleviate these concerns is to bring more natural light into underground parking areas. The garage below Ikea’s College Park branch is set into a hill, meaning that two sides are open to the outside. At University Town Center in Hyattsville, underground garages are lit by a shaft reaching to the street above.

View From 14th Floor Balcony, Gallery at White Flint

Parking lots along Rockville Pike are giving away to other uses,

like housing, retail, and open space. Photo by author.

There are trade-offs to parking garages. You can’t just pull up to a space, you might have to take stairs or an elevator back to the street, and you usually have to pay for a space. But they do conserve land, which can go to other uses.

In North Bethesda Market, there are wide sidewalks with lush plantings and lots of benches. The first thing you see when you come out of the garage is an elegant plaza with a fountain at the center and lined with shops and restaurants. Eventually, this will be just one part of a larger network of urban open spaces throughout White Flint, none of which would be possible with the surface parking lots that line Rockville Pike today.

Building up on parking lots is one of the changes that the Post calls a “threat” to the suburban way of life, whether in Montgomery or across the river in Fairfax, which is undergoing similar growing pains. While there are a few special places where parking lots can be a suburban community’s gathering space, most are just places to store cars. If done well, structured garages can do that while making room for the places where people gather and form community. That sounds like a way to make suburbs stronger, not eradicate them.