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Garages Expand Into New Roles as Cities Reevaluate Transportation

AN EXAMPLE of GreenSpur, Inc.’s flex space the firm designed and built in Arlington Forest, where the client wanted a space detached from the home roughly the size of a two-car garage (Photo: Courtesy GreenSpur, Inc.)

As the City of Falls Church moves toward accommodating car-alternative transportation, City officials are following the consensus among urban planners that investing in a public parking garage is passé. But does a government-level disinterest in building a public utility represent a budding trend of disinterest in residents’ own garages? The short answer is no; although with shifting generational and municipal priorities, the garage is primed for an evolution.

Garages are in a weird place. Dense cities — like Washington, D.C. — are beginning to focus support on different modes of transportation. Uber’s CEO Dara Khosrowshahi told CNN in November that he hopes city residents won’t own a car in the next 10 years. Realtor Magazine reported in October that housing analysts believe by as soon as 2030 garages could become less of a fixture of the home.

For the suburbanites who stay outside of the anchor cities proper – such as Falls Church – but still frequent the metro center for work or play, the car they own may struggle to find a place inside this revitalized cityscape. And if loses its primary function for transportation, residents may begin to see less reason to keep or buy a home with one attached.

That line of thinking is a bit far-fetched, according to Mark Turner, owner and founder of the design and build firm GreenSpur, Inc on W. Broad St. He believes the American love for the car holds strong, especially outside of urban areas where the car remains a vital part of everyday life. But he and his team, including director of design Zach Gasper, have been innovating some new twists on the garage’s conventional function for vehicle and tool storage.

“You can intentionally design garages as more than just garages, in our opinion, but as a flex space,” Turner said, who went on to say how Airbnb is changing the way people look at their homes and different ways to monetize them. “Now people think ‘I can rent this thing out,’ instead of putting a car and some bikes in it. Design-wise, if you can make it attractive but still flexible, we’re finding that clients in the market really demand that, especially millennials and even empty nesters”

Airbnb might have changed the way people view their homes, but it hasn’t bought into the trend of renting our garages just yet. According to the company’s spokesperson, it’s not an avenue Airbnb has explored at this time. But the site does offer diverse options ranging from hostels to guesthouses.

If the designs similar to GreenSpur become the norm instead of the exception it could catch on. Some of its early models include two variations on detached, single car garages with cars going on the bottom floor and a loft, den or guest suite on the second floor.

Though Turner admits they have more of a boutique-ish clientele. Gasper follows that up by noting one Falls Church client wants a spa/office detachment and an Arlington client had a woodland retreat constructed in the back of their home — both roughly the size of a two-car garage.

These flexible spaces can fit comfortably into a Falls Church that’s been adamant about transforming itself into a multi-modal locale.

Options to walk, bike, take transit and get around by car were labeled as priorities when the City released its updated Comprehensive Plan in 2017 titled, “Falls Church 2040.” Steps being taken include the coming improvements to the Washington & Old Dominion Trail and the implementation of a Bikeshare program in Falls Church as well, while also adding new retail stores near one another so residents can hop shop-to-shop on foot. The arrival of an establishment that supplies no parking – last summer’s opening of Northside Social – is Falls Church’s test flight to see how the popular the new initiatives are.

Whether the City can make serious progress, however, remains to be seen.

A CONCEPTUAL DRAWING of a community home designed by GreenSpur that’s currently in the planning phase. The structure can accommodate one vehicle inside of it with a rear stairwell (not pictured) leading up to a bedroom on the second floor. (Photo: Courtesy GreenSpur, Inc.)

“It’s nothing new. Architects, theoreticians and urban planners have been talking about these pedestrian-friendly environments since the turn of the 20th century,” architect and founder of DuBro Architects + Builders on S. Maple Ave., Jeff DuBro, said, while mentioning how this paradigm shift in the U.S. uses European cities as examples. “You can have an urban planner in a small jurisdiction, like Falls Church City, say they want to have a more pedestrian-friendly community…but all these cities’ urban planning had the car at its center.”

According to associate professor in urban affairs and planning at Virginia Tech’s Alexandria campus, Ralph Buehler, municipalities need to make alternative modes of transportation attractive, safe and convenient. But Buehler also mentions that zoning codes requiring parking to be constructed alongside new buildings makes driving convenient. It’s why, despite the City’s vision, the Harris Teeter on W. Broad St. and upcoming Founders Row project both either currently or plan to have underground parking garages built into them.

Even with some headwinds in the present, the City’s vision may have some beneficial long-term gains. Per Buehler, areas with walking, biking and easy access to transit are able to get a premium when it comes to home sales because they usually signify proximity to bustling downtown areas. He states that this is an empirical correlation as of now, instead of a direct causation, but the connection is strong enough that it’s worth investing in that future. And, contrary to Turner’s earlier point, Buehler mentions that the American admiration for the car may be fading as well.

“What we’ve seen in the last 20 years or so is the value that’s typically been attached to the car has been somewhat weakened,” Buehler said, identifying millennials as the ones who’ve brought about this change in attitude. “We’ve definitely seen the car move from a status symbol to more of a tool we use.”

Still, a lot of balls remain in the air.

Developers are heavily incentivized to build two-car garages since they add about $25,000 – $30,000 onto the value of a home, according to the Realtor report. DuBro also notes that the pedestrian-friendly European cities the U.S. looks to for inspiration aren’t encumbered by the consumerist American culture. Our propensity to buy stuff in excess creates the need for storage, which the garage fills. Meanwhile, Buehler isn’t sure what direction the electrification of cars will go. If they become mainstream items he believes the garage could be seen as the likely place for them to recharge. And, of course, the waning symbolism of the car is more of a slow bleed than an open wound.

What is known, however, is the garage is expected to change in a way that’s reflective of people’s demands and desires. Whether that change brings about a drastic evolution or a marginal one is an open question.