Monday, May 25, 2009

Parking on the past

I'm always fascinated by debates over what gets defined as "history" or "heritage." In Greenfield, Massachusetts, not far from where I live, there's a mild kerfuffle currently taking place about the fate of a one-story building long associated with the automotive business. It's not clear from an April 7, 2009 Greenfield Recorder story what its original purpose was when it was built in the 1920s; it looks to me as though it might have been an auto showroom at one point, but that's just guesswork. It was a service garage from 1931 to 1940, then an auto parts store until 2006. "There's no value in the building," the Recorder quotes GRA chair (and current mayoral candidate) William Martin as saying. "It's all in the land." The Historical Commission disagrees: "This building is part of Greenfield's transportation history," according to commission chair Marcia Starkey, who describes the little brick and concrete building as "an architecturally fine surviving example of Greenfield's classic garages of the 1920s and 1930s."

The GRA wants to raze the structure to build--you guessed it--a parking garage. The Olive Street site is in a part of town that is seen as crucial to downtown redevelopment plans, right around the corner from the striking buildings of Bank Row (pictured at left), which perennially seem to be inching their way back to occupancy. A renovation of county courthouse facilities, mixed-use office and retail space, and a kind of cultural zone centering around the Garden Cinema are among the plans for this block, while the locavore restaurant Hope and Olive (née The Bottle of Bread, from Shelburne Falls) anchors its southeast corner. One end of Olive Street (almost) connects this part of town to the wonderful Greenfield Energy Park, a project of the Northeast Sustainable Energy Association that showcases renewable energy technology along with the history of the town's transportation (and especially railroad) history. The lot directly across from the 1920s garage is slated to become an intermodal transportation center, and perhaps even a railway station if passenger rail ever returns to Greenfield. Interestingly, there's another empty car-related building on that lot at present--the former home of Greenfield Toyota, which has moved up to Main Street and is currently bunking with a Ford dealership while constructing its own new home.

I've been trying to figure out what I think about all of this. On the one hand, sweeping away a couple of relics of the car age--the 1920s building and its much more recent counterpart across the street--in order to create a more concentrated mixed-use downtown area with access to non-automotive modes of transportation seems like a terrific thing. And you can make a case that the Historical Commission's claims of architectural distinction are a bit of a stretch. But their larger point is a good one: something is lost from collective memory if the evidence of the longer span of car culture disappears from the municipal landscape. This seems particularly likely to be the case if the site is simply turned into a parking garage to service the cars that we still have such a very hard time managing without.

NESEA has done an exemplary job of making the Energy Park into a lively site for contemplating past, present, and possible futures, and many of the technological and spatial links among them. It would be great to see the town of Greenfield somehow do the same thing with this site, maybe by building a parking garage that references the 1920s garage and uses it as part of the ongoing civic conversation about transportation, localness, mobility, and the uses of public space. The Historical Commission has talked about perhaps using the facade or some design elements from the old building in the new parking garage. Many of these "facadectomies" can be less than compelling (here's a classic example) but it seems that there might actually be some interesting resonances in this case. 'Twould make an intriguing public history thesis project for someone to propose a design that would not only keep the old building from being erased entirely, but incorporate some of its possible meanings into the redesign and reinvigoration of this part of Greenfield.