The sprawling parking lots of the Long Island suburbs cover almost five times as much space as New York City's Central Park. And that’s just in and around the downtown areas alone. The Long Island Index, a project of the local Rauch Foundation, recently asked architects to design better uses for those acres of asphalt.
One challenge in doing so was the fact that residents on Long Island— where the first suburb in the country was born—weren’t ready to give up parking spaces. And they didn’t like the idea of parking garages.
"Structure parking has a bad reputation here," says Wenk. "There’s a perception that it’s scary, dark, and ugly. And so the competition was about rethinking what structure parking looks like as well, and what it can be."
The nonprofit asked four architecture firms to each look at a different downtown area and partner with local groups to spend six weeks coming up with design concepts.
Some of the ideas are barely recognizable as a parking garage. Next to a commuter rail station in the village of Ronkonkoma, architects from Roger Sherman Architecture + Urban Design proposed a pair of huge, bubble-wrapped open spaces that are half garage, half playground. The parking spaces are mixed in with mini-golf, soccer fields, a movie theater, go-cart track, and a cricket stadium.
Others are more practical. In Rockville Center, another commuter station where parking lots fill up with cars on weekdays but sit empty on weekends, designers from Utile proposed a new parking garage with soaring arches on the ground floor. On weekends, the first level could be used as an outdoor market.
Another design, from dub Studios, suggested using tech to make it easier to find empty parking spaces, so fewer spaces are needed overall. A final design from LTL Architects adds terraces above and below the Long Island Railroad, with shops, apartments, bike repair, and a new incubator space nestled on the different levels.
"We wanted proposals along the full range of the spectrum from visionary to pragmatic," Wenk explains. "We want the designs to start a conversation."
While the designs might not directly discourage driving, since in many cases they're actually adding parking spaces, they're intended to start transforming downtowns to make them more walkable.
"Because they're freeing up land, that land can have different uses," Wenk says. "All of the sudden you have new public spaces, new housing, a whole range of new uses for your downtown."