A Five-story parking garage for Midtown Tallahassee?

A garage building is proposed in the ‘MIdtown’ area of Tallahassee. For many years, this area had not been touched by the more forceful development of downtown and other areas. More recently it has has seen a much-appreciated growth — relatively small redevelopment and re-use of older, one-or two-story buildings, generating a lively pedestrian-friendly ambience, in spite of the fact that the main streets in the area are arteries carrying heavy through traffic; for which there are no plausible alternative routes.

For the newer businesses in the area, looking for more customers than the residents of nearby neighborhoods — mainly Lafayette Park neighborhood, to the east, and perhaps some residential areas west of North Monroe streets — there is a perceived need for more parking, which has led to the proposed project. This proposal envisions a five-story building on the corner of Thomasville Rd. and Fifth Ave. on a lot where there currently is only a small one-story building.

The project — announced as a city-private partnership venture, has generated considerable opposition from residents of the area — most likely due to its size, which is visually quite out of scale with other nearby buildings, and the concern about attracting more traffic to the already strained streets.

The Tallahassee Democrat’s coverage of a public meeting about the proposed project suggests that there was more opposition than support for it. This is understandable, given its size and the dubious experience with some large projects e.g. in the downtown area. There were plausible suggestions to provide any needed additional parking on Monroe streets, or on the site of the Tallahassee Police Headquarters that will soon move away from its current location on 7th Ave. However: some development must be expected on the arguably underutilized site of the proposed project; which will generate the same concerns. So a public discussion about what developments in this area should look like is very much needed — now, before any new proposals are developed, or the current one being driven forward based on the assumptions and agreements with the city. Does the public/private partnership offer opportunity to guide this or other projects towards better results? The city might reconsider it apparent tentative approval, and perhaps insist on a few important features in return for some developer concessions.

The pictures I have seen suggest that the design already includes some general rules of thumb for more pedestrian-friendly environments — for example, the provision of commercial use along the streets. Encouragement for more improvements might be better than mere opposition, to ensure that these features don’t get lost in the further development.

A few general rules of thumb for more pedestrian-friendly environments might include the following:

* The public sidewalk should have ‘layers’ or zones separating the main pedestrian zones from the traffic. This might require some setback of the building to provide a wider sidewalk to allow for trees and other items in the outer zone. A matter for ciity investment?

* The sidewalk: Rather than cute isolated ‘awnings’ over selected openings, (like we see in the picture and in other projects around town, there should be a continuous arcade or awning for part of the sidewalk, for real pedestrian protection from sun and rain.

* The floor area at the sidewalk level: The project to its credit already provides for commercial  space along Thomasville and Fifth street. This is beneficial only if that space — specifically, the area next to the sidewalk — actually is of interest to pedestrians: banks, law or insurance offices, associations are not. Incentives should be considered to ensure that this space will house pedestrian destinations with high visitor frequency. Small stores, possibly movable vending kiosks or carts that can be exchanged to provide destinations appropriate fore different times of day. Public amenities: Restrooms, information waiting areas for bus stops, taxi stops that won’t stop through traffic.

* These destinations should form a continuous chain of friendly experience opportunities with easy transition between them. Even a few dozen feet of un-interesting frontage can disrupt the pedestrian flow.

* The building: Rather than five uninterrupted stories rising from the property edge, it would be better to provide the building with an ‘earthy’ base of two or at most three floors, with upper floors set back by about five feet and designed for a lighter, airier appearance. This would preserve a ‘small town’ comfortable street profile even if the building above were allowed more above (to compensate for the ‘loss’ of profitable square footage at those levels). The sketches below show this principle that perhaps should be adopted as a city regulation, without imposing any specific architectural design constraints:

Not this:                                but this!

Even such large projects that at first sight may seem scary and a threat to the lively, friendly ambience of Midtown can be designed to complement and improve it. But the concerns of nearby residents and businesses, and how they might be addressed, should be worked out in a continuing constructive public discourse.