The remaking of Long Island's downtowns is underway.
A few places are ahead of the curve, others are catching up, and some are still trying to figure out whether to get into the game. As this push picks up speed -- and it will, as more people understand that creating exciting downtowns near train stations is one of the keys to reversing the stagnancy that has gripped Long Island for years -- space will become ever more valuable and even more scarce.
Where will we find it? Consider our parking lots.
These flat slabs of concrete will be anachronisms in dynamic downtowns where people walk the streets, buildings have multiple uses, and culture and nightlife abound. But they, too, can be transformed into something that adds to the energy of these new downtowns, something both old and new at the same time -- parking garages.
We're not talking about the hulks that scar so many downtowns. We mean the parking garages of tomorrow -- structures with many uses besides parking, structures that complement their communities, structures that look nothing like the garages we love to hate.
Go ahead, let your imagination run wild.
The experts are already doing that. The Long Island Index, an organization that explores and reports on Long Island issues, paired four architectural firms with four communities -- Westbury, Rockville Centre, Patchogue and Ronkonkoma -- whose leaders expressed interest in innovative parking solutions. The designs they produced recently were inspiring and mind-bending.
The plan for Westbury mixed parking with commercial and office space inside an attractive structure, with dramatic terraced housing on top. A promenade lined with different services and amenities would lead people into Westbury's burgeoning downtown. Rockville Centre's design was aesthetically beautiful, with large graceful arches and a ground level serving dual purposes: parking during the week, a place for festivals and farmers markets on weekends. The design included housing, retail and rooftop tennis courts.
Other parts of the country -- from Florida to California -- are way ahead of us, sporting parking structures with jaw-dropping designs. One in Miami Beach that's become a tourist attraction features no exterior walls and a top-floor event space that rents out for weddings, bar mitzvahs and charity events.
The Long Island designs were intended to be adaptable for other communities, and they should take a look. Nassau County, for example, is studying whether it would be feasible to replace the acres of asphalt that surround the soon-to-be-redeveloped Coliseum with parking garages, freeing up land for development. The Long Island Regional Economic Development Council, which competes with other regions for state aid for development projects, says it's receptive to applications for mixed-use parking connected to downtown redevelopment.
There are more than 4,000 acres of parking lots in and around the Island's downtowns. That's a lot of potential for re-imagination. The Long Island Index's experiment shows we can, and should, rethink how these spaces are used as we develop the downtowns of tomorrow -- downtowns that take advantage of their proximity to train stations and serve as magnets for the young and anyone seeking a more vibrant lifestyle.
Among the obstacles is the traditional Long Island antipathy to parking garages. The way to overcome that: Make them unlike any garages anyone has seen. Exciting, not drab. Multifunctional, not spaces that are empty nights and weekends. Engines for economic development, not just places to park.
The Index hoped its experiment would jump-start a conversation about downtown parking and the way we use space as we rethink and retool suburbia.
Let's start talking.