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First sign of demo; the site fence

Outlet Garage slated for demolition in Providence

Often the first sign of demolition is the site fence around a property. Here we see the site fence set up around the Outlet Garage on Friendship Street Downcity.

The Outlet Garage was featured on this year’s Providence Preservation Society list of Ten Most Endangered Properties. Here’s what PPS has to say about the property:

In 1963, Providence’s Outlet Company anticipated the city of the future with the construction of a new multi-story parking garage by architects Gage & Martinson unlike any other structure in the city. A parade heralded its arrival and dignitaries ceremonially cut ribbons. Shoppers were happy for both the convenience and the symbolism of modernity as they streamed across the new “skybridge” from the garage to the department store.

Today, the current owners plan to demolish the parking structure to make room for a surface lot. The Outlet Garage is a symbol of good urban planning that favors parking structures over surface lots which mar the face of downtowns across the country. Downtown Providence has suffered from many holes in its urban fabric over recent years and should not be made to suffer again with the demolition of this structure.

The Outlet Garage further represents Mid-Century Modern architecture, a style that is threatened as properties less than 50 years old are often less understood and consequently more vulnerable to inappropriate treatment or demolition.

I personally have some mixed feelings about the loss of this building. I fully agree with PPS about it being a rare example of mid-century architecture in Providence. I’m personally a fan of the style. And I definately prefer to see structured parking over a surface lot. However, let’s take a look at the building:

Parking garage

I love the lines of the structure. But… this structure, coupled with the blank walls of the Johnson & Wales dorm across the street, completely kill the street here.

Surely the garage could be fixed up to return it to its mid-century glory, but that won’t change the fact that the street here is dead dead dead. Perhaps it could be retro-fitted somehow to have retail spaces in the ground floor level, along the lines of what Cornish is planning for the Biltmore Garage.

Of course, that would not be an historic renovation strictly speaking, and it is doubtful that this section of Pine Street would be able to support any sort of retail for the forseeable future. Not only do we have the deadness created by the garage and the dorm here, but down the block, PPAC has a big blank wall fronting the street.

It might be that we need to give up on this section of Pine Street. That it can’t be a vibrant urban place. That is unfortunate, but not the end of the world. Not every street can be a vibrant streetscape, some streets are just to get from point A to B, or a good place to park, or serve as a loading area for the better streets nearby.

So, when I think of giving up on the street, I think yes, let’s save the garage. Hell, let’s expand it onto the portion of the parcel fronting Friendship Street, which already is a surface lot. The street is dead anyway, people all the time cry about the lack of parking, why on earth would anyone want to tear this down anyway? Peter Brassard has a good rundown of the reason’s in a comments on another post:

More on the garage, Corey is right, surface parking lots are mainly about avoiding real estate taxes.

Parking is a high profit business. Probably the next most profitable land uses are hotels and time-share apartments. The difference with surface parking is that the only upfront costs are for land, asphalt, concrete curbing, and an attendant’s shack. The typical cost for a surface parking space is between $12,000 and $15,000 per spot.

With weekdays – day and evening, weekends, and special events parking, it’s probable that the entire investment can be paid off in as little as two years. If it’s a valet lot, maybe it could be paid off in even less time. Most everything that follows is profit. Is it any surprise that once a surface parking lot is installed in Providence, plan on it being around for at least three or four decades.

An above-grade structured parking space costs roughly $25,000 to $30,000 each. I’m guessing, but assume the Outlet Garage has 360 spaces, if it were to be demolished, perhaps the surface parking lot replacing it would end up with 60 spots. Why is it that 360 spaces in a building is worth much less that 60 spaces on flat ground|Real estate taxes.

If I’m not mistaken the city taxes surface lots as if they were vacant land with grass growing. The city doesn’t need to have a special parking tax approved by the General Assembly, though that would help. All the city has to do is determine an appropriate real estate tax rate for a surface parking lot, different from the rate for vacant land.

Another possibility might be to reverse tax rates, put a higher rate on surface lots and a lower rate on public garages, the taller the garage and more spaces, the cheaper the rate. If it becomes less profitable to operate a surface lot, owners will be prompted to either build a garage on their empty lots or sell the lot to some one that will construct a new building on it instead.

If our tax structure favored structured parking and didn’t make surface parking a virtual ATM, we probably wouldn’t be considering this at all.

This post is becoming as scattered as my feelings on the garage. Here’s what I’m trying to say.

First, I wish we just weren’t talking about this at all. I wish the conditions that make a surface lot more attractive to a property owner did not exist and that this garage would just continue operating (ideally with some cosmetic upgrades).

Second, on the cosmetic upgrades. When I think about this place in my head, I see the garage levels, and those beautiful mid-century designed lines of the structure, the curve of the concrete on the underside of the decks, etc. But then when I walk by I remember how crap it is to stand next to. The blank walls, the general oppressiveness of the whole thing and I think, “eh, whatever, tear it down if you want to.” Then I remember that nothing but parked cars will replace it and I think about how much worse that will be.

Third, I think about how a structure replacing this could make the street better. Again, I don’t see this street supporting retail, it doesn’t have the foot traffic, and the street fronts are non-continuous, there’s some big blank spaces that aren’t going anywhere. However, I could see a nice row of townhouse style apartments, with stoops and trees and what-have-you.

So what it comes down to is, it totally sucks that we’re going to see a(nother!) surface parking lot here. But, I can’t remotely get worked up enough about this building to even think about chaining myself to any bulldozers over it. Does that make me a bad urbanist?

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17 Responses to First sign of demo; the site fence

  1. jen coleslaw July 14, 2011 at 3:21 pm #

    maybe you have ambivalence because you know that a tear down is inevitable and a surface parking lot is too, because we’ve never really gotten away from anything different. Why would anyone redevelop this building when tearing it down and building surface parking is so much easier and cheaper? The city certainly won’t hold anyone’s feet to the fire. PPS doesn’t seem to have any teeth or political sway, and we, of course, know that all thriving US cities are just full of surface parking, blocks and blocks of surface parking. Because surface parking definitely is an economic development engine.

    sigh.

  2. Jef Nickerson July 14, 2011 at 3:24 pm #

    But I do get really excited when I think of the minimum planting requirements that probably won’t be enforced!!!1!!

    /sarcasm

  3. Jason July 14, 2011 at 4:14 pm #

    This post so perfectly sums up my feelings.

    I walk by here with my dog all the time, it’s by far the worst street of several bad, dead streets in the area. I am baffled every time I look at this closed structure and think that more cars can fit in it than in the massive lot across the street from my apartment on Westminster between Snow and Aborn. I am confused as to how we revitalize Downcity when all we do is leave the cityscape pock-marked with surface lots that no one uses 80% of the time.

    And mostly, I am hurt that we have so much vacant space in an area that so clearly has the “bones” of a great, vibrant downtown that’s functional for living and recreation. Is Rhode Island so deeply entrenched in suburban culture that we won’t even try to make a real, livable city? How can this state have the hubris required to build Waterplace and The Residences at the Westin, tall monstrosities in the center of neighborhoods for cars and parkways, but not have the vision to populate Downcity’s existing vacancies through some smart development?

  4. Lewis Dana July 14, 2011 at 4:22 pm #

    Jef’s right: wouldn’t be nice if anyone beyond Cornish Associates and Durkee, Brown etc. would pay attention to the code that requires property line landscaping around parking lots.

  5. Lewis Dana July 14, 2011 at 4:23 pm #

    Make that “Jef’s right: wouldn’t it be nice…

  6. AJP081384 July 14, 2011 at 4:46 pm #

    This city simply infuriates me sometimes. Just for discussion, how long do you think it will be until we see the first sign of vertical construction in this city over a few stories high? Until we can get back to the fun discussions that used to be had on Urbanplanet.org? Are we talking years? I work downtown and everyday on lunchbreak i walk circles around the city and mentally fill in the parking lots with attractive glass and brick buildings with ground-floor retail. It genuinely makes me angry as to how close this city is to what it wants to be yet how very far it still has to go.

  7. Andy July 14, 2011 at 5:52 pm #

    We’ve moved rivers, built the World’s fourth largest self-supporting dome, birthed the modern food diner and transported a triple span arch bridge up Narraganssett Bay, but we can’t figure out parking lots. What happened to Rhode Islanders thinking and doing big?

  8. Peter Brassard July 14, 2011 at 6:37 pm #

    Is anyone aware of an application to demolish the building?

    The demolition of the Outlet Garage is not on the docket for the next City Plan meeting on Tuesday, July 19. Though the former Regal Plating site is, where we can expect a rubber stamp approval of another 74 surface parking spaces that will probably be around for the next 50 years.

    What’s wrong the Department of City Planning and Development and the Mayor’s office that just continues to allow this bad land-use policy to keep reoccurring?

  9. David July 14, 2011 at 9:41 pm #

    That empty gray wall just makes me think how nice some well done street art or a mural would spruce up the place.

  10. jon July 14, 2011 at 11:12 pm #

    There is something really bizarre about tearing down a parking garage for a parking lot… proves how messed up the tax codes are that there is a financial benefit to disinvest in a property and bring it down to a lower land use.

    I also find it interesting all the stores and downtowns that spent great sums of money and effort in the mid-century to woo motorists downtown by butchering themselves with free abundant parking and new access roads. They are all the very places that lost their downtown retail the earliest, shows you that catering to motorists downtown does not work (they’ll just go to the suburbs anyway) and only destroys the downtown.

    “A parade heralded its arrival and dignitaries ceremonially cut ribbons.” Goes to show you how obsessed with autopia they were then to have huge festivities for a parking garage opening.

  11. Peter Brassard July 15, 2011 at 8:29 am #

    I don’t know if anyone in the city government reads these posts, but if they do, they should impose a three-year moratorium on the demolition of parking garage structures, which should be immediately followed by a real estate tax study and adoption of changes to the tax code.

    The real estate tax study should review and propose new guidelines and rates for taxing parking garages and surface parking lots. As I suggested in the May 7, 2011 post to determine an appropriate real estate tax rate for surface parking lots, different from the rate for vacant land and to propose reverse tax rates for public parking garages and surface parking lots. A higher rate should be imposed on surface lots and a lower rate on public garages, the taller the garage and more spaces, the lower the rate.

    If the city is going to lose the tax income that the Outlet Garage provides due to demolition anyway, the city may as well give a discount to the Outlet Garage owners to preserve the parking spaces within the building. An incentive or penalty should be imposed to insure that parking spaces are used and not warehoused.

  12. Bret Ancowitz July 15, 2011 at 8:39 am #

    > Just for discussion, how long do you think it will be until we
    > the first sign of vertical construction in this city over a few
    > stories high? Until we can get back to the fun discussions that
    > used to be had on Urbanplanet.org? Are we talking years?

    I would think more like decades, both for PVD and most other cities as well due more to the economy than anything else :(. Remember many of our tower proposals were residential, and that’s certainly not happening how.

    The real estate bubble period was our best chance at major construction probably for 20-30 years. Right now, even if it’s just a “few stories,” I’d be thrilled with some infill (although, as was seen on Weybosset in the former Downcity Diner spot, even that is having trouble getting financing).

  13. brick July 15, 2011 at 8:42 am #

    I so wish they would at least be held to the landscaping standard.

    To me while I understand all of the problems of surface parking and I am 100% on board with everything people have said so far, the only, literally only benefit they have is that an neatly kept piece of asphalt is a couple of steps up from an abandoned lot that collects trash and weeds. Also, of course, abandoned lots don’t generate any tax revenue if they are truly abandoned (not sure how often that happens).

    I guess what I’m saying is that surface parking alone is blight enough, at least enforce the codes to keep them from being completely disgusting.

  14. Jess July 15, 2011 at 9:40 am #

    @ Peter B.

    There is a tax study currently happening in the city.
    Members of the city council and the mayor appointed a commission called the “COMMISSION ON REVENUE, SUSTAINABILITY AND EFFICIENCY” . They meet every other Thursday. Last I heard they were having interns run numbers for them. Not entirely sure what they are doing about business property or taxes. They split into sub-groups : TAX EXEMPT WORKGROUP, Property Tax Structure, Non-Property Tax working group. http://council.providenceri.com/node/214

  15. matt July 15, 2011 at 11:12 am #

    the mall killed downtown revitalization. at least on the retail end. it’s basically six city blocks stacked on top of each other with a huge maze of a garage for all the suburban families to drive to. they don’t have to deal with street parking or the traffic of downtown. they drive almost directly into the garage from the highway and can spend the entire day encased in a false sense of (private) security, climate controlled, concrete consumer heaven. when they’re done, they walk to the car, pay a few bucks for parking and drive directly to the highway to take them back home to their sleepy village (that’s no more than 15 minutes away of course).

    suburbia is too ingrained in the minds of Rhode Islanders. most have cars, drive in and around providence, and need places to park. the tax code supports open lots for parking. bam! there’s your recipe for urban disaster.

    urban revitalization isn’t going to just require legislative changes and development, it’s going to require a change in the mindset of the people in this state.

    people are only going to advocate for what they want… and from what i can see most people just want to find a parking space.

  16. BinPawtucket July 15, 2011 at 11:13 am #

    I just looked at the city council’s web site. Talk about neighbors being a world apart (Prov/Pawt). I’m jealous, and furious that Pawtucket can’t even manage to post a district map. Providence residents have a great resource; good luck making use of the contact information. I’m rooting for you.

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