Karrie Jacobs


June 18, 2010

From the Department of Oxymorons

The wind turbines on Greenway Self-Park, Kinzie and Clark, Chicago

The Itinerant Urbanist has been strangely sedentary in recent months, but I just spent the past couple of days in Chicago. And it was a revelation.   In the 1990s and the early 2000s, I used to go to Chicago all the time.   Until this week, however,  I hadn’t been there  — except for a few overly long stretches at O’Hare — since 2003.  On this trip, I was amazed at how beautiful the city has become.  Yes, Millennium Park with Gehry’s Pritzker Pavilion and the mighty Bean, are stunning, as is the interior of Renzo Piano’s Art Institute wing.  But today it seems as though the whole center of the city — especially the area along the Chicago River — just radiates well-being. (More on this later.)

So there I am, wandering the streets of Chicago, admiring its luster, when I’m stopped in my tracks by these strange, unicorn-horn-ish  wind turbines.  Pretty quickly I identify the building type.  Greenway, with its Ionic volutes gone wild, is actually my second green parking garage.

The first green parking garage of my acquaintance is in Santa Monica.  It was done by Moore Ruble Yudell, and is distinguished by its attention grabbing, multi-colored facade.  The Santa Monica, LEED-certified  garage features a whole menu of energy saving and pollution mitigating features:   solar panels on the rooftop shade structure, a filtering system to remove  oil from the storm-water runoff, recycled fly ash in the concrete,  free bike-storage lockers and outlets for electric cars.  Similarly, Greenway boasts local and  sustainable building materials, an efficient glass facade, a green roof (de rigueur in Chicago), cisterns to catch rain water, space for Zip Cars, etc.    All good.  All nice.

The philosophical problem, of course, is how green can a parking garage truly be.  When I asked this question of James Mary O’Connor, architect of the Santa Monica garage, he answered with a question: “Cars aren’t going to go away tomorrow, are they?”  Well, no.  Apparently they’re not.  And parking garages are arguably a better solution than street parking, especially as  we’re increasingly transforming parking lanes  into bike lanes.  And also because it’s been estimated that 30 percent of traffic congestion and car-related pollution in cities is caused by drivers circling in search of a spot.

Still, it’s hard  to see the green garage as anything more than a perverse symbol of our current quandary.  Yes, we want to be better, but, no, we don’t want to stop driving.  It is a half measure, a way of making the existing infrastructure marginally more sustainable…and a hedge against genuine transformation.  The best thing about the Santa Monica and Chicago parking garages is the strong visual signal they send.  They’re powerful advertisements for change.  It’s just that, like lots of advertising, they don’t entirely deliver on their promise.

Greenway Self-Park as seen from Kinzie St., Chicago

The Santa Monica Civic Center Parking Structure.  (Photo by Noah Webb.)

P.S.  Check out my latest Metropolis column about using old industrial buildings for new industry.  And also, in the current issue of Dwell, I’ve got another piece about seeing the interstate highway system as infrastructure and land that could be used for more than just a single purpose.