Aug 22, 2014

To Park in the Front or Not to Park in the Front

I remember when I first got to St. Louis in 2002 as the new Mayor’s Director of Planning.  A great friend Don Roe, now the Director, took me on a tour of the city.  And believe me, it was not like anything I or as I have come to realize, most people can comprehend.  The devastation resulting from 500,000+leaving in forty years certainly did not exist in Toronto or anywhere else, including rural china, where I had worked and visited.

I remember driving along in the hot humid May weather, the vacant lots block after block then all of a sudden, there was a new suburban subdivision, less than a mile from the heart of the city.  It looked like a downsized version of Mississauga I thought, or now here, Cranston.  There along one street was house after house with a front garage and driveway.  I had remembered on my many visits to the city in the past to see family, seeing similar pop up suburban style homes in the centre city and I asked Don about it.

The street just on the north side of downtown St. Louis, where
in the late 1990’s new homes had to offer front garages in the
inner city, in order to attract people back into home ownership
in an area vacated during the public housing fiasco's of the
1950’s and 60’s.
Well this was only one of many very rationale things I learned about planning and cities while working there. Don explained that in order to attract people back to the city, the houses with the front garages could not be sold for what it cost to build them even though we were giving away the land. And if you were a single mom with one or two kids driving home from day care after a day or working in the winter months where it was dark at five o’clock, you did not want to drive up a dimly lit alley, park in a rear garage, then walk through the dark back yard with those same two kids, and feel safe.

A block away and only a few years apart from the houses
pictured above, once people started moving back into the
northside of the downtown, we were able to use federal
financing to create more urban style housing and grow the
market for new homes.

That the front garages were in fact a marketing and real asset to the folks we were trying to lure back into the city, was real.  That to get people back, this was necessary even in the inner city.  But just like the fairy tale princess, you have to kiss a few frogs in order to find the prince, and once we had people coming back, once the property values increased slightly (the houses still needed gap financing, meaning government money to pay builders to build them to offset the sale price lower than the build cost), we were able then to change the model, rebuilding abandoned laneways to provide rear garages and then create the street frontage of porches leading to neighborhood interaction the Truman show parodied 15 years ago and which we see throughout our suburban landscape.

The Truman show is based on the new urbanist lifestyle of Seaside Florida, where life is, well, conformist.  The trailer highlights the importance given to the “communicative” aspects of the front yard.

So this was a great lesson for me.  Great urban design is useless if nobody comes.  And yes, sometimes we have to sacrifice the model city ideals when circumstances dictate this.  Front garages worked in the first phase of repopulating the north side of the city.  I hated them in Toronto and yes I drafted the zoning regs designed to make them harder to build, but the reality of economics, race and unrestricted growth, proved to me that there are times when we have to kiss a few frogs.

It was a few years later, I was in Atlanta meeting the then Mayor about the Planning Directors job when I was being shown around the city by a real estate agent highlighting neighborhoods where I might want to live. We stumbled across a street of infill housing, very expensive, very new, not a grid, but a loop of planned single family houses, each with a front garage.  It was a tight infill, comprehensive in design and I wondered how the fire department did not nix it.  And I loved it.

At the time I had several cars including a ‘61 Alfa Romeo convertible, and there was no place on these lots to wash your car in front of the garage door because the driveways were almost non-existent.  The houses were pulled tight up to the street and parking was limited due to the many curb cuts. And there are no sidewalks.  And I loved it. The houses were well designed (yes they were oversized), not far from transit and services, and violating all I held so dear from the big smoke (Toronto).


This early 2000’s infill project in north central
Atlanta is compact, well designed, high density,
very expensive and almost every lot is front
garages with very short driveways.  Forces
people to use the garage for, surprisingly, a
garage, and not storage.

Yet it worked and it worked well.  It brought high density in the form of singles, into an existing neighborhood with houses that sold for lots of cash boosting existing home values with high earners spending cash in the neighborhood.  Were the ideals of planners as represented by the Truman Show ruined, leading to neighborhood degradation, 1982 Chevy Impalas parked all over the street and front yards and the worst fears of existing residents come true?  Nope.

In the fact all of the opposites are true and there are more Porsche Boxster's than Chevy Impalas. So why show this example?  Because just like the extreme opposite on the north side of downtown St. Louis, the front loaded garage has a place in our urban landscape. Now I am not saying everywhere and I turn away from the typical row after row after row of front garages of the monopoly subdivision that dot the landscape of so many cities, but it can work particularly in tight infill situations.

This house in Cranston is typical of so many subdivisions
across North America.  And while I love to have a driveway
to wash my car and motorcycle, I can also do that from the lane.
And yes, the front garage reduces the cost of providing the
house, using less land and getting more houses per hectare, but
at what cost to the social fabric and potential of the new
Now I am maybe the biggest fan of alleys on the continent, hence our Jane’s Walk last year downtown. And despite the dust in the underground garage from the alley in Mission where I live, it even gets under my motorcycle cover, I love alleys.

But we have to embrace alternatives when the situation warrants it.  Remember, alleys cost money. That subdivision in St. Louis at the top of this blog, well if an alley had been put in, it would have meant fewer houses would be built because the federal funding would have paid for it rather than subsidizing more houses.  It is cheaper to put in front garages than an alley. That is the economic reality.

Obviously when an alley exists, the garage should be to the rear. And for new subdivisions we do try hard to get the alley rather than the front drive.  However, there are situations where the front parking is the better option and where an infill with a basement garage and narrow drive curb cut can make sense. Let’s keep an open mind to how we build the city.

There are lots of good and bad examples here in Calgary. The photos below are from one residential intersection in the SW where you can be the judge of whether or not it works.  The examples show different house styles and personally I find the at grade garage can work depending on the treatment of the surface.  And if there is to be a driveway with no lane, then there has to be a curb cut somewhere as we see in the corner house where the flanking street has the at grade garage.

These three photos are taken at one SW intersection showing
at grade front garages.  The corner property highlights that if
there is to be a drive, it has to happen on at least one of the
streets. For many cities the issue is not so much the garage, but
the lack of soft landscaping in the front yard, leading to lots of
zoning rules about hard and soft landscaping, width of the drive,
parking in front of the main front wall.  In the Atlanta example,
the parking issue is dealt with by making the drives far too short
for any car to park but inside the garage.  A novel idea.

As we see more and more infill housing coming to the city, our staff are working to ensure great solutions. Most recently along the south side of the West LRT opposite Jacques Lodge, there are three infill applications heading to council in early September. Good uses, market driven three or four floors and a few units. The community is supportive.  One of the applications is pushing for at grade front garages despite being on a lane.  The slope of the land does create issues for rear parking access, but we are working to the goal of access from the lane. 

This 1980’s infill project on Earl St. between Jarvis and
Sherbourne north of Wellesley is really one of the best
infill projects ever.  High density in the form of townhouse,
two rows, built over a common parking area with a front garage
entry.  The second row of houses behind the first (house
behind a house)occupies what in many cities, would be the
rear lane, begging the question, does the increased number
of houses offset any detriment from the sidewalk interface?
In this example I would say it is a worthy trade off.  This is
the combined single drive, curb cut from Earl St. providing
parking access to the common garage serving this infill project.
The design of the houses, the plantings and fence all serve
to soften the impact.
We have several applications and interest in small clusters of townhouse infill where parking can be more flexible.  Here is a great 1982 infill in the heart of downtown Toronto across the street from the former Wellesley Hospital.  A very urban location and in fact the busiest place for the sex trade in the mid 80’s (we got rid of it by dead ending the street).  Unfortunately the builder lost his shirt as the product came on the market during a recession, yet look at the pictures and how all the parking was combined underground, one curb cut with beautiful townhouses, small front yards and not so obvious, another row of town houses behind.  Very British in design with the brick courtyards and I always wanted to live, but could not afford, here.

Each infill project has a particular set of circumstances and solutions.  At the end of the day, we can regulate and encourage, yet the outcomes do not always please everyone.  I like the houses in Atlanta and on Earl St. shown above, but would never have been able to afford either. That YYC example of the entire front yard being a driveway is a bit more challenging to like.  Cities have been trying to regulate design through zoning for decades. I remember drafting zoning to require 50 percent of the front yard to be soft landscaping in Toronto.  Well, those red barbecue bricks counted, but did not look very good.

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