The Garage Wars Duel On Sansom St. Points To Larger Issues.

Posted: April 15, 2000

The perpetual Center City debate over aesthetics vs. profits once again has reached high decibels.

At first, the fight over plans for a multistory parking garage on Sansom Street was over whether some old but undistinguished buildings should be razed. Now, with demolition begun, the brawl is over how tall the garage should be. On a deeper level, it's over just how far a historic downtown should bend to accommodate the car.

The developer, Wayne Spilove, who also chairs the city's historic commission, wants to create 320 self-park spaces. To do that on this broad, shallow lot means a 12-story garage.

Neighbors on narrow Sansom are understandably aghast, given that the exterior would, above the first few floors, consist of ugly concrete piers.

The dispute is now being played out before the city's zoning board. Mr. Spilove is seeking relief from city codes that require the upper floors of the garage to be set back in a kind of a wedding-cake look. Those rules seek to avoid a sidewalk-darkening "canyon" effect on a midscale streetscape like Sansom.

But Mr. Spilove says that rule would impose an undue hardship, because of the high cost of engineering a parking garage to those specifications.

What opponents of the variance want - short of Mr. Spilove going away and forgetting the whole thing - is for him to build a lower-rise garage using valet parking, which would pack more slots into a given space (hence fewer stories) but cost more to run. (Valets get paid.)

Mr. Spilove contends, further, that most drivers prefer to park their cars themselves and that valet parking causes traffic backups. It's hard to sort out those dueling views.

But if a garage is inevitable, perhaps there's a way to reconcile economics and aesthetics more satisfactorily.

Mr. Spilove could reduce opposition to his variance if he agreed to create a more aesthetically pleasing exterior. It is not hard. There are many instances where parking garages have been designed to present a less gap-toothed and demoralizing face to the street. Surely, as chair of the historical commission, Mr. Spilove must appreciate the need.

No sane person wants to turn Center City, that rich array of pedestrian pleasures, into one vast parking lot. But allowing adequate parking in the right places is a necessary concession to the reality of America's car culture.

Striking the right balance would be easier if the city had a good master parking plan based on good data. It doesn't. The city planning commission has embarked on an overdue parking study.

Hurry up, folks.

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