Des Moines, Iowa — They were supposed to be saviors of downtown, drawing people by offering parking as plentiful as at any suburban shopping mall.

But decades after cities tore down buildings and replaced them with parking structures, communities across the country are demolishing the garages and putting up buildings again, confident that more people will be drawn to lively offices, hotels and housing.

“Virtually every city is grappling with this,” said Tom Murphy, an urban revitalization expert and former mayor of Pittsburgh, referring to the demolitions designed to enliven dowdy business districts. “How do we create more vibrant places?”

Typical parking structures built in the 1960s and 1970s were functional but not very charming, with blank gray walls and concrete ramps.

Now that many mid-sized cities are trying to capitalize on renewed interest in living and working downtown, the wrecking balls are swinging.

In Des Moines, the city plans to tear down two downtown parking ramps that were built more than 40 years ago. One covers two blocks along busy Grand Avenue and stretches over a street, filling a void that once was home to a movie theater, roller rink and hotel. It will be replaced by a smaller building with two floors of shops and parking above.

Assistant City Manager Matt Anderson said the city’s decision was prompted by the garages’ deterioration and a desire to get rid of the uninviting concrete edifice.

Officials want more of the street-level stores that have helped transform a once-sleepy downtown into a busy district with nearly 10,000 residents and dozens of restaurants and bars.

“If not a lot of thought is put into a ramp, they can be a real eyesore,” he said.

In Asheville, North Carolina, a developer demolished a 1960s-era garage in late December and plans to replace it with an upscale, nine-story hotel with retail shops. The structure will include parking that will be largely hidden from view.

Wes Townson, vice president of acquisitions at McKibbon Hotel Management, noted the site was a hotel before the parking garage replaced it.

“We’re coming back around to what was there before the ‘60s,” Townson said.

The new development will increase the property’s value from about $1.5 million to nearly $35 million.

Sam Powers, Asheville’s director of economic development, said the new building would add to the mix in the eclectic city, known for its beautiful setting in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

“It provides the opportunity to get additional folks into the core of the city to see and visit a lot of the independent small shops and restaurants and craft breweries in town,” Powers said.

The demise of big garages is part of the continuing search for what makes downtowns work. In the 1960s and 1970s, cities experimented with building pedestrian malls and replacing old buildings with civic buildings or public spaces.

Many of those efforts failed. Or as Murphy put it, “What were designers drinking or smoking in the 1960s?”


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