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Why Center City parking garages are disappearing

As Philly parking garages make way for housing, urbanists cheer. But should they?

A cyclist passes a parking garage at 16th and Addison Streets. A developer plans to demolish the building for housing.
A cyclist passes a parking garage at 16th and Addison Streets. A developer plans to demolish the building for housing.Read moreDAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer

In their relentless quest for land to build townhouses and apartments, Philadelphia developers have razed no small number of fine old buildings made of brick and stone. Churches, schools, movie theaters, firehouses, and shops have all been sacrificed to the housing boom. To that list of worthy architecture, you can now add a building type of a lesser sort: the downtown parking garage.

In early October, the 150-car garage at 21st and Lombard is slated to close so its new owner can erect a clutch of luxury townhouses. Another small garage at 16th and Waverly is being converted to apartments. These developments bring to five the number of parking structures in the Rittenhouse Square area that have been torn down, marked for demolition, or converted to apartments since 2015. It's not just garages that are disappearing, either. So are the small surface lots that once dotted the rowhouse blocks south of Walnut Street.

Is there anything wrong with that?

For decades, the conventional planning wisdom has been that free-standing garages and surface lots are the urban equivalent of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, lifeless zones that squeeze the energy out of cities and make walking less pleasant and safe. Urbanist websites like Streetsblog have made a specialty of mapping the amount of land devoted to parking in America's downtowns, and the acreage is staggering. The point of the visualizations is to show how cities undervalue land by using it to store cars instead of putting it into productive use to house people and businesses. It has become an article of faith that the less above-ground parking a city has, the healthier its economy.

Yet this conversation about parking and urban success has largely focused on downtowns, where people work, rather than on neighborhoods, where they live. Does the same urbanist thinking apply in residential areas of Philadelphia, where a sizable percentage of the workforce commutes to jobs outside the city?

Talk to some of the people who are being displaced from the Lombard Street garage and the answer, naturally, is no.

"It will diminish the value of living here," contends Andrew Terhune, who moved to the neighborhood 30 years ago. Because he needed his car to travel to his job in Horsham, he willingly shelled out $295 a month to rent a space in the garage. His wife, who worked in Delaware, did the same. Despite the cost and hassle, they chose to live in Center City because it allowed them to be equidistant from their jobs.

The irony is that Terhune spent his career as an executive at Toll Bros., a national homebuilder that has done its share of replacing Philadelphia parking lots (and buildings) with housing. Philosophically, Terhune says, he has no objection to tearing down the Lombard Street garage for townhouses: "It's private property and housing is a higher and better use." Yet he believes "there is a demand for parking that the owners are missing."

Based on the passions that flare anytime someone dares to build in Philadelphia without dedicated parking, you might assume Terhune has a point. But the situation is much more complicated, and it varies widely from neighborhood to neighborhood depending on proximity to downtown, frequency of transit service, and perceptions of safety.

The common assumption is that a growing population requires more parking. But that isn't borne out by the numbers in Center City, where the population has ballooned since 2000 by 16 percent.

In roughly the same period, occupancy rates in Center City garages have fallen significantly. After peaking at nearly 78 percent in 2005, garage occupancy had dropped to 74 percent by 2015, a Planning Commission study found. The decline occurred even as the city's restaurant scene was exploding and tourism was booming. Center City has never been busier at night.

City Councilman Allan Domb, a Realtor who calls himself the Condo King, says he saw the change coming years ago. "There used to be a year's wait to get a monthly space in the Dorchester. Now, there's a surplus of spaces," he told me.

At the Penn Warwick garage on Chancellor Street, which Domb owns, revenue has dipped nearly 15 percent over last year. Domb was amazed that occupancy there remained flat even after the Little Pete's garage on 17th Street closed this summer to make way for a hotel. Across the Schuylkill, Brandywine Realty plans to install a food hall in its Cira garage because so few motorists use it.

One obvious reason for the falling garage occupancy is that our relationship with the private automobile is undergoing a significant change. Thanks to the availability of car-sharing and ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft, and the rise of the delivery economy, it's easier — and often cheaper — for city dwellers to ditch their vehicles. Fewer than half of Center City residents now own cars.

That doesn't mean parking is going to become a nonissue anytime soon. Garages may be emptying out, but city streets are not. It can take 20 minutes of circling blocks to find a parking spot in some neighborhoods.

Though a monthly parking space requires a significant cash investment, the city virtually gives away its on-street parking. An annual permit from the Philadelphia Parking Authority still costs $35, less than a round of craft beers. The fee is so cheap it encourages people to warehouse their cars on the street, making it difficult to find parking.

That, in turn, fuels resident demands for developers to increase the number of parking spaces in their projects. It leads to street-deadening, garage-fronted rowhouses. (The owner of the Lombard Street garage, U.S. Construction, is proposing to line the Addison Street side of the lot with 14 garage doors.) Installing that parking also adds enormously to the cost of housing, making the city less affordable.

Raising the price of the permits to a more meaningful level — $500? — would immediately free up parking spaces. But that's too blunt a mechanism. Donald Shoup, author of The High Cost of Free Parking, the bible of parking policy, advocates replacing the Parking Authority's system with a more targeted rate system that uses airline-style pricing to nudge people to give up their cars. His approach would preserve spaces for those who can't exist without them, such as reverse commuters and the disabled.

Raising the permit fees would be politically tricky. But it's a far better solution for Philadelphia than a bill being advocated by Council President Darrell L. Clarke that would double the parking requirements for housing projects in the densest sections of the city — the places that have the least need for more off-street parking.

Terhune, who is now semiretired, concedes he had no problem finding another garage. "Instead of walking one block, I'll have to walk four," he says. As a backup, he has bought a street-parking permit.

The question of how much parking Philadelphia needs is not easily answered. But there is a good bet it's a lot less than you think. I'll take the housing over the garage anytime.