It is time for a public park in downtown Bellingham

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

My first interaction with this top floor, likely sometime in the 1990s, came about as a result of a phase in my life where I was “elevating my subconsciousness.” I didn’t always wake up on top of buildings in downtown Bellingham, but it seemed like it was happening with enough frequency to call it a hobby. As with youthful social deviants the world over, others have now usurped my throne and security issues, painting over graffiti and cleaning up wayward digestive tracts are a major, persistent, hassle for Parkade employees.

My next experience on the Parkade roof deck came in the summer of 2009, when I was a fully mature and functional adult. During that pleasant summer evening, as a group of my peers hula-hooped around the orbit of a plastic penguin we had brought with us, one of us said something that has haunted me ever since: “Damn, look at this place! This is the best park in town!”

No, actually, it is not.

What it is―what it has been for several years—is an empty level of a parking garage. There are now cameras and security staff happy to remind you of this fact.

The Parkade was built in 1969 as the result of a lonely campaign flogged relentlessly by Brian Griffin. Griffin is best known for having poured life into another concrete edifice, the Farmers Market complex.

“Back in the day,” Griffin recalled, “Dad would go off to work while Mom did her shopping, in downtown, for everything. All the retail was downtown and people were buying cars and not using the buses or trolleys anymore. It was a problem that resulted in the malls happening.”

Griffin was asked to join the Civic Affairs Committee, but he demurred for lack of faith that it would accomplish any good for the dying downtown.

“I said, ‘We need a parking garage downtown or we’re going to lose it,’” Griffin recalled. “I told them the only way I would be interested is if we did nothing else but commit to building this garage.”

He became the chair of the committee and, as they say, the rest is history.

As far as parking garages go, Bellingham got really lucky. The building, one of the tallest in the Central Business District, is so inoffensive in its exterior design that,―ironically, few people even know it is there. Designed by local architects at the firm of Stradling and Stewart, the most important and lasting feature of the Parkade is the inclusion of retail stores girding the street-level sidewalk.

“Nowadays it is pretty much a given,” lead architect John Stewart explained, “but, yes, it was a bit of a rarity back then to do that.” The perimeter of trees, now fully grown and taller even than the building itself, was also a consideration that, according to Stewart, “took a bit of a fight” to make part of the Parkade plan.

My own vision for adding trees and greenery to the Parkade also took some early blows. It was late 2010 by now and I had, for some daffy reason, become fully obsessed with green roofs. I went back to school, to floss some plaque-encrusted credits that were rotting, and enrolled in a curriculum of sustainable design. I created an elaborate and painfully verbose website devoted to green roofs in Bellingham. Then I hornswoggled my way into an internship with a local nonprofit organization that had formed, of all wondrous things, a “Green Roof Task Force.”

Our lone goal was to find to find suitable targets in Bellingham’s CBD, where stormwater runoff and its impacts are the hardest to manage, and, hopefully, install green roofs upon them.

“The Parkade!” I bellowed.

It will never happen, the Task Force leader said. Never.

Parking is a sacred cow in our car-obsessed culture and, because of this, we completely divorce ourselves from sanity when we perceive it is under threat. If this is true downtown, then it is quintuply true in Fairhaven, where business owners will become unhinged, like protective mother bears, if anything should glance cross-eyed at their Parking District or dare suggest closing streets to improve pedestrian walkability.

This parking-related dementia is not reserved just for business owners. Car drivers, those “consumers” attempting to access retail nirvana, are actually worse in the realm of warping their parking perceptions. The numbers are delicious, so let’s now snack upon them.

The length of an average city block in Bellingham’s CBD is about 450 feet. In Fairhaven, where the blocks are smaller, and therefore cuter, it is closer to 220 feet. By contrast, the Bellis Fair Mall, which Griffin predicted against and yet still came to be in 1987, has parking lot depths sometimes exceeding 450 feet from the nearest entrances. The lot at Walmart is bigger still, having lot depths eclipsing 600 feet in length. The “parking problem” is real, therefore, but it is solvable by psychology more readily than by building more empty lots.

If you park your car on the top level of the Parkade, for example, then you might as well drive past it to City Hall or to the Lakeway/Holly intersection—that is how far 2,200 linear feet of extra driving is. 

The upper floors of the Parkade are not for retail shoppers. These spaces are leasable, for $616 per year, for people working downtown. Since city officials could validly argue they “need the revenues” they milk from this cow, I was excited to learn the final bond payment for financing of the Parkade was made last month, 42 years after the building left Stewart’s drafting table. Even at $134,000 per year, the Parkade bond purchased an invaluable asset for this community. No matter the cost or the cloying number games I play, the CBD would be truly buggered if we deleted all 495 units of parking it represents from the nearly 3,800 that were known to exist in a 1997 district inventory. As dangerous as my tilting windmill appears, I’m not proposing that madness.

All I want is for the top floor—the empty one—to become a public park.

“If it was used for large gatherings, then that could be a problem,” Kris Hamilton, the lead engineer for the structural design of the fifth floor, said. Hamilton came late to the Parkade project, tardy by nearly three decades, because the fifth floor was added to the building in 1995. “A sculptured landscape design, with circulation areas for people, should work O.K. though,” Hamilton added.

Hamilton delivered a cautionary detail that is as frustrating to me as trying to find a lost car at the cineplex when “Wife Elves III” is playing on every screen: The structural loads permissible for parking cars on garage floors are lower than the loads demanded for the people, desks and chairs sitting in an office floor.

Still, after listing a half-dozen design options, Hamilton finished his off-the-cuff meditations by suggesting the idea is not, actually, insane. “I dare say that something could be done,” he said. “It could get expensive, but [putting a park on it] would be cheaper than adding a sixth floor.”

My decades-long relationship with this building entered a new chapter last month during a Parkade “Perk-Up” walk-through survey. About 25 people and a gaggle of Public Works staff showed up to answer the question of “what can we do to improve this building?”

As the winds of a brainstorming session rose, I raised my hand and offered that my half-dozen renderings and 19-page design manifesto could be included into the mix. A few people laughed. I, however, am creepily serious. I’ve become the weirdly obsessed boyfriend who wants to date the city’s ugliest daughter, their cow, and take her to prom.

Here’s the bargain: The city owns this property. We paid for it. The top floor is either unused or unusable as a future parking asset―since no “major downtown employer” wants to drive nearly a half mile, at 5 mph, for eight laps, as they watch their nearby office space drifting by their car window. We’ll never find cheaper, or more centrally located, park acreage. We’ll never find better views of our gob-smackingly gorgeous city. And, since the CBD’s largest permanent public plaza is currently a postage-stamp courtyard snuggled, ironically, behind the Parkade, we know we have the need. Public surveys done last year asked for our biggest “wish” for the CBD and the top answer could be this top floor; Build us a park downtown.

We would need to get over the claustrophobia that wobbles on the edge of this brilliant idea. It can, and has, already been done. Seattle just installed a public “UpGarden” pea-patch on a garage of nearly identical size and age. And, at the other extreme, the Kaiser Center has a three-acre public park sitting above its five-story garage that has been around for more that 50 years. It is, reportedly, a great place for weddings. I’d wager, however, that Bellingham’s garage has views that could blow Oakland’s trousers off. Brushing aside abundant lip-quivering denials, it is possible to make the Parkade into a thumping tourist engine. We have our local example in the converted parking lot we today call, thanks again to Griffin, the Bellingham Farmer’s Market.

“Putting a park on it” would be just reward for a city that is rapidly cresting the charts nationally for proving a willingness to just let the damn car rot. This is because the City of Bellingham has responded, very well, to previous polling that said we wanted more bike lanes, more greenways for walking, and improved or expanded public transit.

We are doing what we said we would do, if given the chance.

Now, like good little puppies, our cookie, our park, please?

Alex McLean serves on the Bellingham Transportation Commission. He has posted renderings and a detailed proposal for the Parkade on his website at Look for the tab marked “Linville Park.”

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