Blacktop history: The case for preserving parking lots
04 June 2014 – David Rotenstein
In early 1950, developers opened a “park and shop” center in suburban Washington, DC. By 1950 “park and shop” was an established commercial property type, and the phrase was in common usage (by general public and developers). Media coverage of its opening focused on the spacious new supermarket and other retail establishments, as well as on a state-of-the-art theater with late-Art Deco detailing, designed by a nationally-recognized architect. But the center’s ample free parking lots got as much attention as these other features, reflecting how central the automobile was in the creation of what was becoming a dominant American commercial landscape. A February 12, 1950, Washington Post article noted that the center “will have easy parking space for 600 cars, with no need for backing and scratching that new fender.”
Sixty-three years later, historic preservation planners recommended designating the property under that county’s historic preservation ordinance. But although the parking lots were considered part of the cultural and historic landscape, the planners recommended treatment for the property that privileged preservation of the buildings only. Although adhering strictly to the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation for the movie theater and shopping center itself, the recommendations to the county planning board encouraged redevelopment of the parking lot. This omission challenges decades of preservation practices that require preservationists to consider the tout ensemble–the entire scene.
Historic preservation’s treatment of parking lots has been mixed. Architectural historian Richard Longstreth, an early champion of preserving twentieth-century park and shop properties, described their parking lots as members of the “supporting cast” to what he described as the “stars” (the buildings). “It was seen as essential to allocate two or three times as much ground area to parking as to buildings, to accommodate a clientele that had become almost entirely reliant on cars for transportation,” Longstreth wrote in his 1999 book, The Drive-in, the Supermarket, and the Transformation of Commercial Space in Los Angeles, 1914-1941.
The shopping center case raises serious questions for cultural resource management professionals working with twentieth-century properties. Key among those questions is how to best balance good preservation practice with sound community planning and land use decision making. On the one hand, it seems important to acknowledge the many problems of car-centeredness, which have become clearer over time. Several generations ago, sprawling surface parking lots were considered innovative and necessary. Now, they are described as blighting greyfields. One 2010 suburban Washington study recognized that that one county’s 8,000 acres of surface parking lots and strip malls “require creative reuse.” A recent post by an Oregon historic preservation organization urged “preservationists to save the beautiful history of vacant lots”–but the post was written facetiously, as an April Fool’s joke. In Washington, DC, a recent study found that the city’s number of parking lots and redevelopment sites declined 89 percent since 1997, from 106 to 12. Old and possibly historic parking lots are being replaced by “smart growth” projects and touted as sustainable new urbanism.
On the other hand, parking lots are a key component of American landscapes and histories. While no reasonable preservationist or historian would advocate for saving every parking lot and retaining what are often critically characterized as “seas of asphalt,” there may be merits to preserving elements of the twentieth-century built environment that capture our nation’s automobile-centered culture and the infrastructure required to support it.
There are heartening signs that preservationists are coming to take a more comprehensive view of parking lots while planners, developers, and others are finding new uses for them. Historian Timothy Davis explored alternative uses for surface parking lots in a 1997 paper published by the Vernacular Architecture Forum. Davis urged architectural historians to move beyond viewing strip shopping centers as urban planning problems while warning against romanticizing them. Davis argued that strip shopping centers–buildings and parking lots–should be treated as “mid-twentieth century commercial landscapes” that warrant some level of historic preservation. In Richmond, Virginia, historic preservation planners recognized that a 1930s park and shop’s parking lots were integral character-defining features inextricably tied to the buildings. “The asphalt parking lot in front of the complex is an important part of the ‘park and shop’ design and it is considered a contributing resource,” they wrote in the National Register of Historic Places nomination form for the Cary Street Park and Shop Center.
For many reasons–aesthetics, environmental health, the high cost of urban and suburban real estate–it’s more difficult to make a case for parking lots as contributing resources in a cultural landscape than it is for the open spaces that are preserved around many kinds of historic sites (think Mount Vernon’s and Monticello’s agricultural fields, plus mining landscapes or vernacular farmsteads). But creatively incorporating adaptive use techniques may offer a way to resolve the tension between preservation and change.
Parking lots that once catered to cars now find secondary uses as urban farmers’ markets, festival sites, and pop-up skate parks. Many, like those in suburban Washington or Atlanta, have been appropriated by new immigrant communities who succeeded America’s baby boomers in suburbia. Some of these spaces are now serving as unofficial civic plazas and market places in what historian Thomas Hanchett describes as the “Salad-Bowl Suburbs” or demographer William Frey’s “Melting Pot Suburbs.”
As more twentieth-century parking lots are replaced by new town centers and more sustainable mixed use developments, historians who deal with the built environment must find a middle ground that ensures that these relict landscapes are not dismissed simply because they lack curb appeal. The challenge for planners and preservationists, as historian Davis wrote, is to match new functions and new people to old places.
~David Rotenstein (Historian for Hire) is an independent consultant working in Atlanta, Washington, DC, and beyond.