Smart Park

By Mary Grauerholz

How parking garages are becoming the newest city parks.

Boston has almost 7.5 million square feet of designated, off-street parking space. Wide swaths of concrete, asphalt, and steel, often spattered with oil from vehicles and salt from roadways. The parking facilities in this East Coast city—and across the country—have long been an egregious land-hog. But that is changing.

Parksmart, formerly Green Garage Certification, is a relatively new addition to the suite of sustainability rating systems administered by the Green Business Certification Inc. (GBCI) and was developed with the support of the International Parking Institute. Parking facilities are rated on the basis of sustainable practices in management, programming, and technological design. As a result, parking structures now have an opportunity to show communities how they can be more environmentally friendly, by finding innovative ways to reduce energy consumption, maximize performance, and minimize waste.

Post Office Square is mitigating 100 percent of its electricity footprint with renewable energy under a 25-year Power Purchase Agreement, partnering with MIT and Boston Medical Center, to purchase all of the output from Summit Farms, a solar project in North Carolina. Photo: Ed Wonsek ArtWorks Inc.

There are currently 10 Parksmart-certified facilities—all in the United States, though certification is open to facilities worldwide—and 63 sites pursuing certification, says Paul Wessel, the director of market development for Parksmart and the former executive director of the Green Parking Council. “The ultimate goal of Parksmart is to create more mobility for more people, using fewer resources,” Wessel says. “All the pieces are there, or are emerging. Parksmart makes sure parking asset owners are at the front of the curve.”

Consider the Garage at Post Office Square, located in Boston’s Financial District, the first Parksmart-certified parking garage in Boston. (Another, Charles Square Garage, is in nearby Cambridge.) Formerly a rundown, three-story, above-ground parking garage, today the Garage at Post Office Square is a modern, seven-story underground facility with a sophisticated ventilation system and eye-catching green roof: the 1.7-acre Norman B. Leventhal Park designed by Halvorson Design, dotted with trees, fountains, and a gazebo-covered café.

John Dalzell, AIA, senior architect for sustainable development for the Boston Planning & Development Agency (BPDA) and a LEED Fellow, is optimistic about Parksmart’s role in Boston. The big story today, Dalzell says, is how municipalities are leveraging the suite of GBCI rating systems to promote sustainability in cities and drive best practices. “Parksmart gives us a new tool to drive sustainability and best practices for structured parking garages and marks a new milestone in that story,” he says.



Top and Middle: In the heart of Boston’s financial district is the landmark Norman B. Leventhal Park featuring “Immanent Circumstance,” the central glass and bronze sculpture/fountain designed by Howard BenTré, a Rhode Island sculptor. Photos: Ed Wonsek ArtWorks Inc. Bottom: Pamela C. Messenger is the general manager of Friends of Post Office Square. Photo: Joel Laino

Top and Middle: In the heart of Boston’s financial district is the landmark Norman B. Leventhal Park featuring “Immanent Circumstance,” the central glass and bronze sculpture/fountain designed by Howard BenTré, a Rhode Island sculptor. Photos: Ed Wonsek ArtWorks Inc. Bottom: Pamela C. Messenger is the general manager of Friends of Post Office Square. Photo: Joel Laino

Parksmart also offers an opportunity to explore partnerships between cities, private enterprise, and the nonprofit community. The City of Boston made the Garage at Post Office Square, formerly an above-ground parking garage, available for redevelopment. That process involved the local business community, which saw the value in having a public park as a beautiful amenity, as well as the additional parking made possible by the underground garage.

The Garage at Post Office Square is owned by a civic corporation made up of 20 Boston firms and individuals who have a strong interest in improving the Post Office Square district, Friends of Post Office Square. Creating a park, complete with free activities, had the support of the City of Boston and the local community, which were seeking ways to create more green space in the city.

“This isn’t just about how the city works with Post Office Square, but how cities work with organizations like the real estate company and the U.S. Green Building Council [USGBC],” Dalzell says. USGBC, he adds, provided the means for the city to define acceptable practice and the market recognition to reward leading practitioners. “This is about what we can do together.”

Parking structures have been “a glaring gap” in environmentally minded construction, Dalzell says. “They have an enormous impact. We see Parksmart as a new, important addition to the suite of green building and sustainability rating systems.”

Located completely below ground, the Garage at Post Office Square is invisible to the throngs of people buzzing through Boston’s busy downtown on any given day. The only landmark is the Norman B. Leventhal Park, set above the garage. The park, a respite from the urban traffic and busy sidewalks, offers places to relax while its trees and flowers absorb CO2 and give out oxygen. In the summer, the park offers free music concerts and fitness classes organized and provided by Friends of Post Office Square.

The park turned site of the previously decrepit three-story garage, which had been city-owned, into a community connector. “It was a horrible property,” says Pamela C. Messenger, general manager of Friends of Post Office Square, of the above-ground facility. “Above-ground parking garages leave a lot to be desired in urban environments,” she muses. “They are not the highest and best use of land; you’ve got four sides of a building that don’t offer anything. They’re just not welcome neighbors.” The park, besides offering green space and greatly decreasing stormwater runoff from the city block, also generates revenue through property taxes and increases the value of nearby properties. “The park is our face to the world,” Messenger says.

Inside, the garage installed a sophisticated ventilation system to reduce pollution and carbon monoxide detectors on every level, with fans that switch on before carbon monoxide levels become dangerous. Offices and underground restrooms are climate controlled.

The previous garage was demolished in 1988. “The irony is, it was almost 34 years old,” Messenger says. “The new garage is 26 years old and we’re not anything close to [the wear and tear] of the old one. We look a lot younger than our years.” The garage includes two car-sharing services, one devoted to 100 percent electric cars and one for traditional gasoline-powered cars, which diversifies mobility options available to the community and promotes alternative modes of transportation.

The Post Office Square Garage is certified at Parksmart’s Pioneer level, as are all existing qualified parking facilities that earn certification. (The Pioneer level is currently the only designation for existing garages.) New facilities, or those commissioned within two years of registration, are eligible for Bronze, Silver, or Gold certification.

Since the certification, Friends of Post Office Square has formed a consortium with Boston Medical Center and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to purchase credits for alternative energy, produced at Summit Farms, a solar facility in northeastern North Carolina. “Under our Power Purchase Agreement, we’re offsetting 847 kilowatts of electricity annually,” Messenger says. “This is the equivalent of the entire annual electric bill for the garage and the park.”

For the City of Boston, Parksmart and other GBCI rating systems have the potential to open a new pathway in an expanding vision for a more environmentally sustainable future. In addition to Parksmart, Boston has already set precedents, says Dalzell at the BPDA, including a first-in-the-nation zoning ordinance that requires projects of more than 50,000 square feet to achieve LEED certification. The zoning ordinance turned 10 years old this year.

Boston continues to demonstrate leadership when it comes to building strategies and best practices in sustainability. This past January, Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh committed Boston to be carbon neutral by 2050. “We can look at Parksmart to provide a framework for low-impact/high-performance parking facilities with energy storage, electric-vehicle charging, and solar canopies,” Dalzell says. “Parksmart fills an important gap in our strategy.”