Friday, June 3, 2011

Still Life with Robin: The 7 Pillars of Wisdom (Garage Version)

by Peggy Robin

In the midst of a heat wave (such as we’ve been having this spring) or during the snows of winter, or on any rainy day, it’s good to do your grocery shopping at a supermarket with an underground parking garage. That is, it should be good to park indoors to do the food shopping, but it rarely is. A few days ago the Washington Post had a report on the widespread complaints heard from patrons of the newly opened North Bethesda Whole Foods with underground parking, instead of the wide open expanses of surface parking most suburbanites have come to expect.

What would it take to make an underground lot attractive to drivers who are used to outdoor lots? Here are seven principles of garage design, that came to me in sudden flashes of insight while driving around in circles in the darkened recesses of the below-grade lots of some of our local grocery stores. I’m calling these points the “Seven Pillars of Wisdom (Garage Version).”

First, and most important, of these seven pillars is the pillars themselves. These concrete supports that hold up the building need to be placed well out of the driving lanes. That’s seldom the case. Take the Tenleytown Whole Foods Market, for example. Those massive, squared-off concrete pillars are lurking around every bend. You get the paranoid sense that they are reaching out to attack your rear fender as you attempt to drive by. For proof of how many cars they’ve damaged, just look at the paint scrapings on every one of them.

Second, lose the validation bureaucracy at the exit. You have enough on your mind with trying to find everything on your shopping list. On top of that, you have to remember at the checkout to hand your parking ticket to the cashier to be stamped, because they rarely think to ask first. Why is this step even necessary? At the Harris-Teeter in Adams-Morgan there’s no ticket upon entry and you just sail right out of the lot when you’re done shopping, and that’s a big reason why I shop there. At the Giant at Van Ness, on the other hand, if you forget to pick up the separate validation slip, you’re in trouble. Worst of all is being caught in line behind someone who forgot to get the ticket validated and is wasting time arguing with the garage attendant who won’t let the car out without payment. It feels like unlawful imprisonment to be trapped in this situation. I’ve even gotten out of my car and paid the parking fee for the person who refused to pay, just to free myself and the others behind me.

Third, provide wide ramps and aisles. While I was singing the praises of Harris-Teeter for its ticketless entry and exit, it’s time to damn its treacherous circular descent to its lower level. You need to have a small car and be a very skillful driver to negotiate the narrow passageway, just inches of clearance on either side, to the available spaces down below.

Fourth, no blind intersections. No need for mirrors, 3-way stop signs, and guessing whose turn it is to go. It’s hard enough driving around trying to avoid hitting giant pillars in the middle of narrow lanes. Why make it worse by having to negotiate blind curves with cars coming at you from another direction? That’s exactly the case at the Harris-Teeter when you come back up that winding, narrow ramp to the exit level. Just as you approach the top of the ramp, while you are still at a steep angle, you reach a stop sign. If you stop right where the sign is, you won’t be able to see any cars that have the right-of-way. The intersection is so badly designed, you really need to stop a second time, forward a bit, to get a good view. The Georgetown Safeway has a similarly problematic intersection at the base of its curving ramp to the upper level, but at least there you are provided with a mirror to help you see who might be coming. In a well designed garage, however, the sight lines would be better and these blind intersections avoided altogether.

Fifth, let the shoppers bring their carts directly to their cars to load their purchases. You don’t want to be forced to leave a full cart by the store’s exit, walk to your car and then drive it to the pickup area, where you’ll probably end up waiting in a line behind the slowest loader in shopping history. You want to be able to roll your cart right up to the trunk of the car. That means there should be at least one part of the garage at the same level as the grocery store. If there are more levels of parking and you end up having to take your cart up or down by elevator, there should be at least three elevators, and they need to be big enough to hold three normal size carts. Again, the Van Ness Giant is the example of what an underground lot should not be like. If you can’t find a space on the P1 level and you end up parking one level down, here’s what will happen when you bring your cart down to the P2 level: You will roll your cart out of the elevator and then through a door to the parking area, only to find a short concrete landing fenced off by iron rails. There are two steps down. Your cart can go no further. So my solution, if I can’t find a space on the P1 level, is to turn around, exit the lot, and go shop somewhere else.

Sixth, let there be light. Being able to see where you’re going makes the underground experience safer for everyone, not just for drivers, but for pedestrians, too. Good lighting discourages crime. It even discourages littering. While brighter lighting will cost the developer some extra money, it also puts the consumer in a brighter mood, and happier consumers are willing to spend more money at the store.

Seventh (and this, to my way of thinking is a premium feature, the thing that can transform a mediocre parking experience into a first-class one): install red light/green light space indicators. You may have seen this technology in use at the parking garages at BWI. As you drive along, you can see strings of lights over the rows of parked cars. If there’s a red light overhead, that means the space is occupied. A green light means the space is available. The lights are visible a good distance away, so you save valuable time, not to mention gas, by going straight to the nearest green light. No more endless circling, and then that surge of hope as you think you spot an empty space, only to have hope crushed as you approach and find a teensy Mini-Cooper hiding in the space you covet, lost beside a ginormous SUV. I have not yet seen a light-indicator system in the underground lot of any area grocery store, but as new stores with underground lots become more common (as the Post article predicted they will be), I have every hope that a devloper will see the benefit in being able to offer this convenience to drivers/shoppers. I for one would become a loyal customer of any store that could offer me a lighted guide to the nearest, safest, underground parking spot. And would remain so as I had the green light.

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