According to a recent Wall Street Journal feature, one of the most striking trends in contemporary American architecture is the reimagining of the parking garage in Miami Beach. I approached the article with trepidation, worried as soon as I saw the names Zaha Hadid and Frank Gehry that the Journal was mainly talking about starchitecture’s bizarro sculptural forms, which are almost always somewhere between indifferent and openly hostile to their context.


To my surprise, there’s some truly innovative stuff going on amid the concrete car culture of south Florida. The most visually striking is probably Arquitectonica’s “Ballet Valet”  (aka “the Chia pet”), a block of small-scale retail crowned by a three-story parking garage that overflows with verdant plant life. But the seven-story Miami Beach parkade built by Herzog & de Meuron is ultimately a more important innovation. Not only does the building incorporate striking ground-floor retail, but there’s a glass box housing a hip boutique midway up one side and the top floor is a multi-use space rented out for special events.


The building’s developer, Robert Wennett, told the Journal, “This garage doesn’t feel like a box that’s impenetrable. We wanted people to move through this building.”


Though the Herzog & de Meuron building is a flashy piece of high-end architecture, its most transformative aspect – the concept of a parking garage as a mixed-use building – doesn’t need to be elaborate or expensive. In fact, I saw a simple, elegant example of the mixed-use parking garage a couple of weeks ago on the waterfront in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico.


Here’s the building:

To the right of the pedestrian bridge, a line of shops crowned in parking. (Photo: Ashley Bristowe)


This is, to the best of my knowledge, a retrofit. This parking garage stands at the south end of a long, broad promenade called the Malecon, which has been a popular stroll for Puerto Vallarta tourists and locals alike for as long as the city’s been a holiday destination. The Malecon is an exemplary public space, a simple default answer to that inevitable tourist query of where to go and what to do. There are shops, restaurants and elaborate nightclubs up and down one side of the Malecon’s length, a public beach on the other side. There are hawkers, food stalls, musicians, performers, touts. It’s always a scene.


Until recently, though, the Malecon ended a couple blocks north of this parking garage. In the fall of 2011, inspired in part by statewide improvements accompanying the Pan-American Games in Guadalajara, Puerto Vallarta’s powers that be decided to give the Malecon an elaborate makeover. Sidewalks were resurfaced and widened, new sculptures and other features installed. And the promenade was extended south to the creek that used to divide tourist PV from locals PV; just south of this parking garage, the Malecon spans the water in an elegant curving walking bridge linking downtown PV with the old local haunt, which now goes by the name of Zona Romantica and is increasingly overflowing with a great many bars, restaurants and shops of its own.


One of the happy accidents of the Malecon extension is that the stretch at the south end of downtown is entirely pedestrian. To the north, a narrow cobbled roadway forms an artificial barrier of cars between the shops and the promenade, creating a disjointed streetscape. The new south end, entirely car-free from storefront to water’s edge, is now the thrummingest part of the whole promenade. This is only the case, however, because someone came up with the idea of boxing in the ground floor of the old parking garage with a handful of storefronts. Instead of a dead stretch of concrete, the street life carries on unimpeded, while cars remain snug in their stalls behind and above the stores. This strip of retrofitted retail is indeed so seamlessly integrated that I’d gone past the building without even noticing it was a parking garage until my wife looked back and pointed it out to me.


There’s no need for starchitects or hip Miami Beach boutiques – or long stretches of Mexican beachfront, for that matter. There are few parking garages in the world that couldn’t be retrofitted this way, cheap and easy, and not a single streetscape that wouldn’t benefit from something other than useless concrete facing its sidewalk.


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Also on MNN: Why free parking isn't free

The simple charms of the mixed-use parking garage
From stylish new designs in Miami Beach to simple retrofits in Puerto Vallarta, parking garages, long the enemies of enlightened urban design, are being turned