The Upcycled City

How to take back the streets from cars and use them for parks, housing, and business instead

It’s undeniable: cars are awesome. Press a pedal, go 90 miles an hour. Magic, right? It’s little wonder that when folks saw the incredible progress cars would bring, they put all their chips in. They paved the way, quite literally, for the car-centric urban forms we know and tolerate today.

Could they have imagined a day when cities willingly give up car space for people?

Early in my urban planning education, I remember reading that two-thirds of the land in Downtown Los Angeles was dedicated for automobile use: one third for parking lots and garages, and one third for streets and freeways. I didn’t know a lot about land use theory, but that struck me as a terrible waste of land, especially for an area that has the highest level of transit connection in the city.

A rendering of one of People Street's plazas.

Despite an admittedly strong preference for the automobile, Los Angeles and other forward-thinking cities are now re-allocating public (and private) land away from the car so that people can use the space for other purposes. For example, the People Street program, brainchild of the Los Angeles Department of Transportation, is an innovative way for communities to reclaim the street without the red tape of local bureaucracy. Groups or businesses can request a public plaza, parklet, or bike corral to be installed in their neighborhood or in front of a shop using a simple proposal form requesting one of a variety of preapproved designs. Plaza conversions, which are the largest of the projects and involve closing an existing street to vehicular traffic, are based on the success of the Sunset Triangle Plaza in Silver Lake. Design renderings are hot off the press for the first three new plazas opening through the People Street program, which will be located in the relatively underserved neighborhoods of Pacoima, North Hollywood, and South Los Angeles.

A view of Sunset Triangle Plaza. Photo courtesy People Street.

San Francisco was one of the early pioneers of the parklet approach: designing a tiny park to fit inside an existing curbside parking spot. These upcycled spaces may contain street furniture, landscaping, gardens, games, workout equipment, or sidewalk dining patios. Last year, San Francisco went a step further by adjusting their parking requirements to allow private garages to transform into store fronts, bike parking, or live-in studios. So far, Reveille Coffee and Beso have taken full advantage of these zoning fixes by setting up shop in residential garages in the Castro District. Their gorgeous and efficient interiors would melt the heart of the most stolid parking grinch.

Could you guess the Rayette Lofts building was once a parking garage?

The ultimate challenge is the reuse of large parking structures. In Minneapolis, several developers have submitted proposals to convert existing garages into housing or office space. The most successful of these projects, the Rayette Lofts in Saint Paul, was originally built as an industrial factory and warehouse, first for millinery and then cosmetics. Eventually the building ceded to the demands of Madame Automobile and became a multi-level parking structure, a tragically common fate for many downtown buildings in the United States. Now, more than a century after its initial construction, the Rayette Building has again been repurposed to serve the needs of a changing city, providing 88 new apartments with retail space on the ground floor.

Granted, most Americans are not ready to fully abandon cars, streets, or parking. The automobile remains the best transportation option in all but a few U.S. cities. However, we can strike a better balance with how we use the precious resource of space in our cities. By dedicating so much land to traveling comfortably and quickly by car, we miss out on using that land to create interesting places to travel to. While some communities may still require copious amounts of parking and travel lanes, others are developing different neighborhood priorities, like green space, local business presence, or better biking and walking infrastructure. We need to plan for flexibility, for the accommodation of what we cannot yet imagine. The future may look more like the “elastic environment” demonstrated by the 1111 Lincoln Road project in Miami. This revolutionary marvel features a sculpture-like parking structure that can transform into a multi-purpose venue for public use, while simultaneously providing retail, office, and residential space. Now that, dear reader, is magic.

An evening view of 111 Lincoln Road's magical, multi-functional structure.

via David Leavitt / Twitter

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