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Urban Garages: Car Closets in the City

by Nic Darling on October 7, 2010 · 9 comments

in Design,Philosophy


Everyone who has read this blog knows I have a certain anti-car bent. It’s not that I am adamantly against the automobile itself. In fact, I actually enjoy driving. One of my favorite jobs I ever had was delivering pizzas. However, I do believe that far too much of our infrastructure is designed for and around the car. I dislike the way that our heavy subsidizing of the automobile has hamstrung our public transit and high speed rail development. I despise the divided highway, strip mall landscapes it has created. I am even inclined to blame some of our degraded sense of community and neighborhood interaction on the car, but for now I want to keep the conversation simpler (if that’s possible). I want to talk specifically about urban garages and their place (if they have one) in our growing cities.

As many of you already know, we are just beginning the development of four homes in Fishtown that will feature garages. The main driving factor behind this was that the existing zoning for the lots already had the garages built in. Rather than reenter the zoning process from scratch, we decided to take these garages on as a design challenge and incorporate them into our homes. This has led to an ongoing and occasionally contentious discussion about urban garages both here in the office and over on the Postgreen Homes Blog. I thought it might be useful to move the discussion here in a way that wasn’t specifically attached to that particular project.

Garages in the city are problematic, and for the most part I would argue that they are unnecessary in a Philadelphia row home. In general I am frustrated with any accommodation for cars. I believe we should be actively trying to discourage individual car ownership in the city. Garages, on-site parking and free street parking all fall into this category for me. While I realize that eliminating all car ownership among city dwellers is impractical, I think we should be doing a bit more to discourage it. As a policy matter I think that fewer privately owned cars would lead to a better urban fabric, happier commuters, cleaner forms of transportation and economic stimulation of urban neighborhoods. But that might just be me . . .

Not a great street for a stroll

On a more practical level urban garages are a problem because:

  • The curb cuts in the sidewalk eliminate at least one parking spot per garage. This issue is exacerbated by the fact that many of those garages are used for storage rather than cars. This means that a new home might add a car to the street parking burden while eliminating one of those parking spots. Again, I am less concerned with this issue myself, but it seems to be a major worry in many Philadelphia neighborhoods.
  • Garages destroy the interior layout of a first floor. Adding a garage to a narrow row home often creates odd, difficult to use rooms on the first floor. In the interest of square footage, most developers will squeeze some rooms in around the garage, but the result always feels a bit awkward.
  • Garages create an unpleasant street condition for pedestrians. The blank walls created by closed garage doors, particularly in long, continuous rows of homes makes for a cold, uncomfortable walking situation. Most garage bearing row homes have nothing but a garage door and an entry door on the entire first floor. There are no windows and thus no interaction with the street. The curb cuts also create a slanted walking condition which can be irritating for those with strollers, walkers or wheelchairs.
  • I mentioned this above already, but garages limit interaction with one’s neighbors. They can, if used as intended, eliminate the need to go outside via the front door. In an extreme case all one might see of a garage using neighbor is their car as they pull in and out each day.
  • Garages also cause some air quality issues in homes with a door leading directly from the conditioned home space into the garage. Exhaust and other garage related pollutants get into the home each time the door is opened. These can be very unhealthy, particularly in homes without adequate ventilation.

That said, I can see some situations and conditions where a garage might be appropriate. Philadelphia has many narrow streets where no street parking is allowed. This doesn’t mean that people don’t just pull up on the sidewalk and park anyway, but it is not technically legal. These streets offer a situation where the addition of a garage has a much smaller impact on the overall parking situation and might even be considered a positive. Streets like this also tend to be less of a pedestrian thoroughfare, so there is less potential effect on the comfort of those using the sidewalks.

I also believe that a city needs a variety of housing types to accommodate a range of people. Even in a situation where one might think that including car storage with a home is a bad strategy, I believe that there can be justification for a garage as a work/play space (almost like our original WORK model). Garage-like space could be used by artists, musicians and the mechanically inclined as a space to pursue their work and hobbies. The garage door itself could be a huge asset to artists who work on a large scale. The space could also be used by people who enjoy entertaining. The garage could become a covered continuation of their yard. All of this involves a slightly different sort of garage, but it seems appropriate in the right conditions.

Or maybe wooden go-carts . . .

Well, I have already gone on a bit. This is what happens when I don’t post for a while. Now let’s hear something from all of you. What problems did I miss when discussing urban garages? What other possible upsides might there be to providing garages? Are there other better strategies for providing a garage-like space without causing the related problems?

Let’s talk it out in the comments.

If you enjoyed reading this post I can promise you'll love our new writing over at Postgreen Homes. Yeah, we know that's the same thing your favorite band said and their new album is nowhere near as good as their early stuff, but seriously, we are actually still getting better.

There also isn't much conversation to be had here . . . at least not with us. So come on over to the Postgreen Homes Blog and tell us what you think of our new(ish) digs and crazy ideas. We will be sure to tell you what we think of your opinion.

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

1 eagleapex October 7, 2010 at 12:15 pm

I think another problem with the garages are all the stupid signs people put up like this:
This says to me “Don’t park here. Only my car can illegally park here. I even have a cone on a chain to save my spot. If you do park here, some drifter in a tow truck will roll by and swipe your car and you’ll have to pay him twice whatever this sign lists to get it back.”
I wonder what would happen if I get a garage for my bikes and tools and then prohibit parking in front of it? Abuse of a silly zoning code?

2 Frank S October 7, 2010 at 1:44 pm

Neighbors across the street do exactly that. They only open their carraige house doors once or twice a year because it is an office/workshop space behind them, but are adament that no-one park across their “driveway”. They don’t even bother to post the standard no parking sign like the rest of the folks on the block. But that is just my rant.
Certain blocks in the City have rear alley access which facilitates having a parking area or garage in the rear. This makes for a much more unified streetscape while providing for a way to hide the utilitarian aspects of living. Interestingly, many of these alleys have had smaller homes built on them, effectively negating the benefits of having a pleasant yard or a detached garage/storage shed.

3 Brandon October 7, 2010 at 2:31 pm

Current zoning requirements for off-street parking are wrong-headed and distort the market in favor of a particular mode of transportation. Let’s take that as a given. Banning garages, however, goes to far in the opposite direction. People should be able to buy houses with or without garages as they see fit.

I live in San Francisco, and parking is at a premium in most of the neighborhoods. Some of the houses have garages, some don’t. When I shopped for a house, I sought out ones with garages, and paid the corresponding premium for that amenity. Our city has public transportation, but we still have cars because our time is worth something, too.

For example, I took the day off on Monday, and because I was in no particular hurry, I picked up my kids from their schools using our Muni system. What would have taken me 25-30 minutes in my car consumed nearly two hours on transit. Note that one school is .6 mi away and the other is 1.9 mi.

Even so, many other people have lifestyles which allow them to go without a car (which I’ve done here, too), and they should no more be compelled to buy a house with a garage than I should be compelled to buy one without.

4 Mid America Mom October 7, 2010 at 9:12 pm

I think it is great to go without a car but from what I can tell the dependence on it is not to stop in the USA anytime soon. In most places the mass transit just does not fill all the needs. Car sharing- a great option, is meant for sporadic- not daily use.

I have been intrigued in with townhome and apartment buildings that go UNDERGROUND for their parking needs and have green decks/roofs above. I understand that basement arrangements would not work in those warmer parts of the US but for at least one level it could work there too. The front would be a normal scape and the back would be elevated to have second floor light and living.

On the slow home site we had someone contribute pictures to such a townhome project around Buffalo. In my old haunt of Toronto they are going underground for parking at new condos (I think Trump will go with a car elevator). My “old” (they called late 1960′s old HA!) apartment building had 3 parking floors below and the deck above housed the building, few attached retail buildings, sidewalks, benches, playground, many planting beds…

BIG ifs? I can see it working in the city if you have control/ develop like a block and can add alley access. How costly? Is this a green solution? Not sure – I am not in the business but it sounds like a WIN to me.

Mid America Mom

5 Jim Wild October 8, 2010 at 4:31 am

The picture reminded me of this view
One of the more sought after streets in London. Amazingly similar in many ways, but lacking that bit extra. Most of the ground floors (aka First floor in US speak) have been converted to living spaces, and they tend to be two rooms wide rather than the modern garage and stairs arrangement. But take a stroll via google and you may see a garage or joinery shop or garage or dining room. So this leads me to agree with the idea that there is a reason to have a flexible workroom. Some of this was tried out in the master planning of the Scotland Housing Expo which i was involved with, this had lanes and outhouses/car ports. Shared surfaces were also a key part of the Expo and this is also very evident in the Mews lanes.

6 Brandon October 8, 2010 at 9:37 am

When I was looking to purchase a house here in Philly over the past year a garage was on my top 5 “wants” list. Unfortunately for me I was unable to find a house with a garage that also met more important criteria like neighborhood, proximity to the subway, and an appropriate size. You list 5 “problems” with garages, some of which I agree with to an extent and some that I think you’re really reaching on or just sorta passing the buck (no offense).

1: You state that many houses with garages use them simply for storage and hence a parking spot is removed from the street while a car is still left with somewhere to park. I don’t really think this is true, and if it actually is…where is the evidence/statistics? I know a few people that have garages and all use them for both storage and parking their car in. Also people with multiple cars that have garages often park one in the garage and one right in front of the garage…which actually removes an extra car from the street parking problem. This point could be either a problem or a benefit depending on the home owner.

2: This is a design issue, not a garage issue. My house is about 50ft deep and 17ft wide, if I had a garage that took up half that (which would be a fairly large garage for the city) you’re telling me there’s not a great way to use that remaining 425sqft? I can think of countless uses for that space and I know for a fact, based on your creativity, previous ideas, and projects…that you can too.

3: This also seems a like a design issue to me. I could argue that the 100k project (even though I truly love it) creates a cold walking experience for pedestrians. Other than a few street level windows (which likely would have blinds or curtains) there is just a front door and blank walls. What’s the difference? Personally I don’t want pedestrians “interacting” with my home…unless I know them of course. If they like the appearance of it…great, if not…oh well. What one person thinks looks great another person will absolutely hate. Whether it’s a row of houses with garages or the Mona Lisa. I do think you have a good point with the very slanted side walks and I think that is also a design issue. I don’t believe the entire sidewalk needs to be slanted, instead it should be more like a curb cut similar to the ones at the end of every block. This would allow for a level sidewalk for pedestrians and easy access for cars.

4: I don’t think a garage limits interaction with your neighbors…unless you want it to. I would be willing to bet that people with garages still exit through their front door more often than not. Just because you have a car and a garage doesn’t mean you drive everywhere you go, especially in the city.

5: Another design issue in my mind. You could use different solutions for the door itself or figure out some small ventilation system specifically for the garage. Maybe it could be wired into the garage door opener so that it comes on when the door is opening and cuts off within a few minutes of the door closing.

The biggest reason I want a house with a garage is that I am really looking forward to buying an electric car in the next few years (crossing fingers for a Tesla Model S). Where else other than a personal garage am I going to park that where I can safely charge it? Not on the street obviously. There are no parking garages in my neighborhood and if there were I still would never pay the $200+ a month it typically costs to lease a space, plus who’s to say they would have electrical access/charging stations. Who knows, I’m ranting now. You make some fair points about garages, but I think they’re still far more positive than they are negative.

Sorry for the gigantic comment.

7 Greenbuildingindenver October 8, 2010 at 9:39 am

In Denver we have alleys in 90% of the city. A few years back they changed zoning to disallow curb cuts if your parcel has an alley.

Car sharing is slowly catching on in our denser neighborhoods.

8 Chad Ludeman October 8, 2010 at 4:12 pm

Brandon – There is a new law in Philly that allows you to get a parking space allocated in front of your house to charge an electric car. Sort of like your own handicap spot. An outlet can easily be run to a tree pit right next to your car.

I’m too lazy to look up the sources right now, but there are good arguments and stats backing up the fact that “eyes on the street” reduces crime in a neighborhood and houses with garages significantly discourage interaction between neighbors.

As for people filling their garages and parking on the street, the Ryan Homes debacle across the street is a perfect example. About 20 units with garages and an extra space in their driveway and almost all of them park on the street and fill their garages. I’ve personally talked to multiple homeowners there that complained that the new office building we are in across the street is “stealing their parking” and very much irritating them. We’ve heard the same thing in countless community meetings where people live next to these garaged homes and have experienced the same condition.

I’d like a Tesla S also BTW. Nice taste.

9 Rob October 12, 2010 at 10:33 pm

Chads point of “Eyes on the street” is the biggest problem with this type of building. Jane Jacobs, in “The Death and Life of Great American Cities”, makes this point very well (if you have not, READ IT!) I see this as less of a neighbor interaction issue, and more of a being 8′ or more above the street literally taking the eyes off of the street.

As for the other points, air quality issues can and should be solved rather easily. Proper drywall sealing and forced ventilation should help. Loss of on street parking due to curb cuts should be a non-issue as they are getting an indoor parking space. My bigger issue is the wavey sidewalk created by the near constant curb cuts. Not a pedestrian friendly sidewalk.

The other issues, interior layout, unpleasant pedestrian experience and limited neighbor interaction can be only very partially solved with good design. These items will remain a difficult challenge.

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