Thursday, July 10, 2014

You May Have Already Noticed, But...

I have not posted recently, because my other blog, "The More Things Change..." has taken on a life of its own, and because I am deeply into preparing the publication of my next book, due out this winter.

Thanks for visiting, and I invite you to read my posts on this blog, if you have not already done so.

I would in particular invite you to visit "The More Things Change..." It is a very different blog, with both a specific regional and a subject focus, but with wide applicability.  I post there on a weekly basis.

Here's the link:

Thank You!

Michael E. Tolle

Monday, March 17, 2014

Where Will The Techies Live and Recreate? (Malta, Part II)

     My previous post about the attempt to establish a “Silicon Valley East” in upstate New York made it clear that if an increasing number of young professionals do come to Malta, the concrete curbs off the asphalt roads already in place demonstrate that their places of employment in Malta will be laid out as an industrial park, with space for parking lots already built into the park’s subdivisions.  The work half of any “integrated community” seems planned to be dependent on roads; the size of the parking lots suggests that it will be automobiles that take them to work.  But what about where they will live?  Is there any chance of an after-hours community of residences, services and entertainment that might reflect the supposedly revolutionary future its inhabitants are bringing about?
     Should the Malta area actually grow into a size resembling a “Valley,” the land it will need to expand the footprint of its Industrial Park sites already exists, divided and laid out.   No so with nearby potential residential and leisure locations, at least beyond the one apartment complex that exists currently.  Such rawness invites speculation about the area’s future.  What might this new, still to-be-created community look like?  Given the existing evidence of industrial park spread, my speculation largely ignores the workplace aspect and tends to wander about the questions of the lifestyle to be enjoyed by the legion of future residents that the combination of money and political influence hopes to lure to this largely “virgin” area.  Where will the employees live and where will they recreate?  What will the local supporting infrastructure—residences, cafes, restaurants, service businesses, etc.—look like? Can an integrated grouping of residences/services develop in Malta?  If so, what form might it take?

     There is an almost total lack of such infrastructure in Malta itself.  A very few employees wishing to live near their work have found local pre-existing houses, and proposals for housing developments are appearing, but arrivals in the near future earning less than a very high salary appear to have only one local destination: an apartment complex still under construction.  The site may actually become a complex, with floors of apartments above what is planned to be commercial space.  Only the renting agency occupies any such space at this point.  The site is not far from the Luther Forest Technology Campus, and a shuttle bus operates between the two, so its residents do no not need an automobile to get to work, just for everything else.  As far as thought to multi-modal transportation goes, a shuttle bus may be it.

     That is largely because there are three factors that argue persuasively against any attempt to plan an integrated work/residence/recreation city of the future in Malta, N.Y.  The first is the area itself.  Malta’s primary selling point—an abundant amount of land—renders any attempt to plan an integrated work/residence/recreation community at least questionable from the very beginning.  Add to that the already substantial investment in road and intersection upgrading in the general area (see my previous post for more on this), some already in place and some under contract; together they suggest that sprawl is expected to be more profitable to the area’s developers than integrated planning.
     Second is the little problem that Malta’s location in upstate New York brings with it.  It’s called winter.  In Silicon Valley, winter is a chronological abstraction.  In Malta, N.Y., it’s real, and it hangs around for a while.  A bike path connects the Technology Campus and the apartment building, but this past winter should at least have poured cold water, if not actual snow, on any dreams of the bicycle as a viable daily transportation alternative.  Speaking of water, I must point to my readers in the San Francisco area that it actually rains in New York, and I am not referring to those persistent showers that go by the name in the Bay area.  Real rain can be an impediment to commuting that is too little appreciated out here.  In fairness, however, the area around Malta is gorgeous, and bicycle trips through the countryside during the warmer months would certain beckon those so inclined. So, bicycles for recreation most definitely, but day-to-day transportation?  No.

     While any integrated work/residence planning would seem to violate the basic ethos underlying the project, a third factor may actually be the relevant component to the evident resistance to such planning.  It’s that annoying variable that comes when you don’t just proclaim free choice, but enable it.  Those greatly improved roads that lead to Malta also lead away from it.  In other words, will the techies that come to work in Malta want to reside and recreate there when other locations beckon?  If they are anything like the techies currently pouring into Silicon Valley, the answer may very well be no.

     I, as a San Francisco resident, can testify that while the latest wave of techies are quite willing to work in Silicon Valley, they don’t want to live there.  They want the urban experience, not the corporate blandness that surrounds their work sites.  Of course, when it comes to urban experiences, San Francisco pretty much heads any list of American cities in offering a variety of them.  For those it doesn’t, there is always Oakland.

     The result is commuter traffic between home and work, which allows me to bring up what is currently the hottest issue in San Francisco: “Google Buses”(Google it and see).  Actually, it’s an array of buses chartered by several companies (with comfortable seats, air-conditioning and wi-fi, of course) that pick up the techies at specified times along fixed routes in the city, whisk them to work, then back home again in time for those evening pleasures that urban areas do best.  This makes them the perfect metaphor for class conflict, which is dear to the soul of every true San Franciscan.  The image of the very well paid and technologically savvy few who board their luxury coaches at public bus stops while those who clean their offices and maintain their new apartment complexes are waiting nearby for crowded, uncomfortable municipal buses is quite potent.  These two very different groups are also increasingly making their respective journeys in the opposite direction.  The influx of the well-heeled is driving up rents at such a rate that fewer and fewer of those people who clean and maintain for the techies can afford to live in the city at all; their numbers are dropping steadily.  The new techies have thus found themselves the somewhat bewildered (if not altogether innocent) objects of class warfare.

     Could the anticipated wave of techies into upstate New York emulate their western predecessors, spurn the local campus area and develop work-residence relationships akin to Silicon Valley-San Francisco?  Might they in turn be accused of committing gentrification if not class warfare?    If they do, three cities beckon, each with a different answer to that question.  The closest city is also the smallest, Saratoga.  Two—Albany and Troy—lie to the south, directly accessible from Interstate 87.  Schenectady to the southwest is actually closer than Albany or Troy, but lacks the direct Interstate connection to Malta.

     The city most likely to see an influx of techies as unwelcome is Albany.  This is the largest nearby city, of long standing and with built-out neighborhoods.  Many thrive, but the state government itself occupies a substantial area, rendering it a classic governmental dead-in-the-evenings sector.  The city’s residents are virtually cut off from the Hudson riverfront by elevated Interstate highways, and that is definitely a black mark.  In Albany, the reception of techies and their buses would likely vary with the local street community.

     Troy is the most likely destination for the new techies, and for good reason.  Troy, which pretty much wrote the script for “once proud river town fallen on hard times,” has steadily rebuilt itself.  My visits there, which span the previous decade, have provided me with visual evidence of how real this is.  Troy offers new techies the most, including housing that is both available and affordable, within a stimulating environment of urban riverfront revival that seems to keep producing new restaurants and cafes on a regular basis.  It’s a work in progress, but that may be its chief attraction.  Residence in Troy offers the opportunity to get in early on a happening thing, a siren call I expect many of the new techies will heed.  I also suspect that if the Malta techies were to somehow foreswear driving to and from work, the private buses that would traverse the streets of Troy to pick up and drop off large numbers of new, free-spending residents would be considerably more welcome there than they are in San Francisco.

     And then there is Saratoga, the closest of them all.  Saratoga is not just a horse of a different color but an actual, living horse.  Several of them, in truth, at least in the summer.  Saratoga is one of the few American cities east of the Mississippi that can, in the 21st century, lay claim to possessing a horse-based economy.  They are no longer a ubiquitous presence on the city streets, of course (for which all can be grateful, particularly in the summer), but they still are on the famous old racetrack.
     Saratoga has a vibrant urban scene, particularly in the summer, when the local population is inundated by visitors arriving to breathe in (often quite literally) the atmosphere of a bygone age.  Visitors used to arrive by railroad, and stay in hotels; the old station still exists, now converted, of course, but the hotels are pretty much gone.  Now they arrive by car, and occupy the cardboard hotels that line the highways close to town.  Saratoga has trendy restaurants, nightspots and the most expensive apartments for many miles around.  Could Saratoga become to Malta what San Francisco is to Silicon Valley, the place they would rather live, while they commute to work?  Might enough of Malta’s new techies be attracted to Saratoga to justify company buses to transport them?  Would an influx of techies further drive up Saratoga’s already pricey rental market, creating a mini San Francisco?  Could we see an anti-techie reaction among the residents of Saratoga, and if so, could anyone actually call it class-based?

     It's pretty much potential at this point (okay, that GlobalFoundries "fab" can hardly be called potential), but Malta, New York has the infrastructure in place to accommodate the hoped-for reality: an industrial park, with an emphasis on the park part (as in cars), a nascent apartment complex for the less well paid or the just temporary, and three nearby urban areas that stand ready--more or less--to accommodate the anticipated wave of techies everyone involved hopes will flock there.  All enabled by the automobile, to which due homage is being paid.  In such a context, even buses to transport the privileged few could be pitched as environmental awareness.  That's a shame for a location with no past, little present and is supposedly all about the future.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Quo Vadis Malta? (Part One of Two)

     So far, there is only one Silicon Valley, and it’s in California.  There are several locations jockeying for the title of “Silicon Valley East,” however, and they present an interesting contrast of approaches toward achieving the desired title.  It is easiest to envision contenders for the Valley East title arising adjacent to existing urban areas, as several studies indicate they are.  These sites trumpet their connection to a well-known and respected academic core, and thus their nearness to a well-known urban center.  Cambridge, Massachusetts is the example with the most prestigious claims (it’s hard to beat the combination of MIT and Harvard).  There is also a self-designated “Silicon Alley” in the New York City area, but, as both sites are newcomers to already built up urban areas, neither is an actual site so much as a collection of firms and institutions in general proximity to one another.

     One contender for the title, however, is taking a different approach, in a decidedly different location.  In utter contrast to the several urban locations, New York State’s money and political influence have converged around the tiny village of Malta, amid the bucolic countryside northeast of Albany, where a massive computer chip fabrication plant is currently under construction.  It is the best contender that money—almost 2.5 billion dollars to date—and political influence (harder to quantify, but considerable) can create, more or less out of nothing. 

     Building a Silicon Valley East in an undeveloped area presents an opportunity to design, pretty much from scratch, an integrated physical plant—workplaces, residences, services and transportation infrastructure—for a modern, energy-efficient community.  This would be extraordinarily difficult (not to mention expensive) to achieve in an already long established urban or semi-urban location, but what about when you can plan everything from the start?  Would not such an overall design testify to the future the products of the complex will help to bring about, and become itself an advertisement for and boost to the location’s future?  If the employment predictions of those associated with this project are to be believed, then Malta presents an opportunity to design just such a forward-thinking, integrated community, one truly worthy of the name.  The chances of achieving such a goal depend on a great many things, and one’s definition of “community” should be at the top of the list. So far, in Malta, such thinking does not seem very prevalent.

     First, some background behind the development.  While Albany’s Capital Region cannot match the academic credentials of Boston or New York City, it is home to the State University of New York at Albany’s College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering, a widely recognized center of academic semiconductor research funded by large sums of both government and private money.  Although this new College sports the trendy name, the much-longer existence of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in nearby Troy probably adds more cachet to the underlying requirement for an academic core.

     The main attraction in Malta itself is land, “undeveloped” land, and lots of it.  This would appear to be a significant card in the game, if the nature of the area’s first major business is any indication. That business is GlobalFoundries, a company formed from the spinoff of Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) chip fabrication facilities in Dresden, Germany, merged with Chartered Semiconductor's operations in Singapore.  The company is actually owned by the Advanced Technology Investment Company (ATIC), a wholly owned subsidiary of the Government of Abu Dhabi.  The Malta site is known as "Fab 8”.   “Fab” stands for “fabrication,” as GF actually produces physical products here.  These products are microchips, in sizes I can grasp only conceptually.  Still, in what must be one of the more ironic results of the digital revolution, the production of microchips seems to require macro fabs.  I believe that if you stood at one end of this fab and peered to its opposite end, you could see the curve of the earth.  Even if I exaggerate (and that is possible), the GF grounds are already immense, and are simultaneously a construction site for even more expansion. 

     GF is both the pioneer and a sizable attraction for those seeking to either locate or relocate.  The Luther Forest Technology Campus has been laid out for these expected businesses.  It is mostly empty (GlobalFoundries is the sole tenant), with roads periodically split by curb curves and a foot or so of asphalt dead-ending into raw land.  The products may be cutting edge, but the layout is depressingly familiar.  Despite its trendy title it’s an industrial park, pure and simple.             
 Luther Forest Technology Campus 
    Judging just on what is visible, Malta’s future as a tech center seems inevitably dependent on the automobile.   Plans for the area announced periodically in The Business Review seem depressingly similar in concept, with the operative word to describe that concept being “sprawl.”  The assumptions in place about future worksites and direct access are clear.  So is the thinking behind getting to the area in the first place. 

     As you drive to Malta from the Albany area (there is no alternative) the planned dependency on the automobile is clear from the significant--and expensive--improvements to the local road infrastructure.  It has obviously been planned and built with greater traffic in mind than that which now occupies it.  Much of the expenditures for the expected development of the Malta area have gone into the construction of roads and bridges to expedite the journey of these anticipated greater numbers to and from it.  The new intersection #6 off I-87, for example, is a single-point urban interchange (SPUI), designed, as Wikipedia puts it, “to help move large volumes of traffic through limited amounts of space safely and efficiently.”  Those traversing it for the first time can find it well, disconcerting.

SPUI Intersection off I-87
     There is also an agreement in place requiring GlobalFoundries, if it decides to build a second fab, to pay for the construction of an additional exit off I87 between the current exit #11 and #12.

     The network around Malta itself has gained some notoriety for the seemingly unanimous agreement among those concerned with vehicle traffic that streetlights are to be avoided at all cost.  The powers that be over the area have instead built traffic circles, known locally as “roundabouts.”  They are well marked on the pavement to quickly instruct drivers as to New York State law governing the right-of-way on them, but nevertheless provide moments of anxiety to those not quite familiar with the required etiquette (including your humble correspondent).  The Malta area also marked the first time I have encountered roundabouts built into the classic cloverleaf design of a limited-access highway.  After you take the Malta exit off Interstate 87 and reach the intersecting road (State Rt. 67), there are no traffic lights, stop signs or even yield signs, just a roundabout to send you in the proper direction.  This is initially disconcerting, but does an offer an easier way to correct initial mistakes.
I-87, Malta Exit roundabouts
     Once you have completed your journey, the best way to describe the village of Malta is to say that when you get there, there is no there there.  I exaggerate, but only slightly.  There is a village here, and there has been for some time.  Prior to the Big Change, Malta was not a destination, merely the intersection of U.S. Rt. 9 and N.Y. Rt. 67.  In saying this, I am being unfair to the residents who were (and still are) there, but in view of what they have had to put up with (not to mention what is coming), I do not believe I am adding any great burden. 

     The residents of Malta are also not taking things lying down by any means (see photo), but their ability to affect the enormous financial and political process taking place about them is most likely negligible.  A hand-painted sign on a backhoe sitting opposite the first residential apartment project built to accommodate new residents provides the necessary symbolism for this unequal struggle.  They try, nonetheless, as a visit to a blog site  ( will attest. 

     The reliance on the automobile that underlies all the planning visible so far may very prove to have been the right decision (from the point of view of the area’s developers, of course), but it places Malta’s future as a community in considerable jeopardy.  The workplaces seem destined to emulate the current industrial park style, but what of the residences, service business and the like that must be added?  Where will the new techies live and recreate, and how will they get to and from work?  That future, and what alternatives exist, will be the subject of my follow up post.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

A Surreal Experience

Since its publication late last year, I have given talks about my book, What Killed Downtown? Norristown, Pennsylvania, From Main Street to the Malls at a variety of locations, from a circa 1700s mansion to a meeting room in a modern banquet facility, with auditoriums and public halls in between.  My talk and signing in June of this year at the Towne Book Centre and Café in the Providence Town Center near Collegeville, Pennsylvania, however, will always stand out, for its surreal blend of both the medium and the message.

It is only mildly ironic that I would speak of the death of a classic American downtown amidst a modern shopping mall.  I strongly favor independent bookstores, and if a mall location is necessary for one to survive, then so be it.  Thus my complete willingness to appear at the Towne Book Centre and Café.  Besides, I bear shopping malls no professional ill will.  The King of Prussia Mall was the prime suspect during my investigation into What Killed Downtown?,  but my book does not identify it as the cause of downtown Norristown’s death.  It identifies a culprit of even greater dimensions than America’s largest retail shopping center. 

My interest in the Providence Town Center actually begins with its causal factor, the Southeastern Pennsylvania section of U.S. Rt. 422, known locally as “the Pottstown Expressway.”  The highway is itself a subject worthy of a historical case study, but it is the shopping center at its intersection with Pa. Rt. 29 that interests me more. 

The Expressway connects prosperous, bustling King of Prussia with Pottstown Borough to its northwest.  The construction of Rt. 422 was sold to the public for its benefit to the long-distressed borough of Pottstown, with Rt. 422 cast in the role of lifeline.  Of course, connecting anyone or anything to Pottstown was not the road’s true purpose, although that would have been an appreciated side benefit.  This substantial stretch of highway was actually constructed to foster development in what was then still largely rural land west of the then-existing Rt. 422.  The Expressway is a bypass around the traditional route, the westernmost portion of Germantown Pike, which originates in Philadelphia.  By the way, the Expressway does not actually connect to Pottstown itself, but to another limited access highway, the “Pottstown Bypass,” thus allowing Rt. 422 users to ignore Pottstown completely if they wish. 

There is always a web of influence, both financial and political, around selecting the exact path of a road, and there always has been.  The Pottstown Expressway was no exception.  Close to the road’s southern end, for example, it takes a very roundabout—and thus expensive—path to avoid some very old properties, including an estate known as “Fatland” that has been around since colonial times.  Whether this was due to concern for historic preservation or because its owner was Peter J. Camiel, who was chairman of both the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission and the Philadelphia Democratic Party at the time, is officially uncertain.

While how much benefit the new Rt. 422 has been to Pottstown is debatable, there is no question as to its effect on all that undeveloped land along its path.  In the final analysis the new road did what it was intended to do: earn a great deal of money for those businessmen whose good political connections allowed them to purchase land in the right place at the right time, along with those politicians with good business connections.  The actual process was not nearly as simple or its profits as predestined as this short summary would indicate, however.  There was never any question that the quadrants formed by the intersection of Rt. 422 with the existing roads would be prime areas for development.  The devil was in the timing.

The two ends of the road were built first.  They were the bypass around Pottstown itself and a connection with U.S. Rt. 202 that included a high bridge over the Schuylkill River.  Both were completed in 1967.  The 13-mile gap between the two was subject to numerous delays, for a multitude of reasons.  An intermediate section opened in 1978, but the Pottstown Expressway did not open from end to end until 1985.  The total cost of the highway by that time had reached  $102 million.

Some investors had speculated early, but after the exact route of the road was known (not to be confused with “publicly known”) the jockeying for property and financing really began.  The 20-year delay, with intermittent starts and stops, played hell with several of the speculators.  Thus, while the eventual profit from development along the new route was basically guaranteed, the vagaries of the financial and real estate sectors served to enrich some but not others, often according to their timing.

Consider the case of the Providence Town Center.  It occupies the northeast quadrant of Rt. 422’s cloverleaf intersection with Pennsylvania Rt. 29.  The state road is of ancient vintage, and was guaranteed an intersection (upgraded, of course, as a condition of project approval by the local authorities).  The property, however, went through three owners before construction finally began (this is an enormous oversimplification, by the way).  The current owner, Brandolini Properties, began construction in 2008, only to be reminded that while location, location and location is important, timing is, in fact, everything.

A more or less standard mix of national-chain restaurants and retailers aligned along the periphery were the first constructed, and their accessibility and high name recognition helped to counter the economic bad times.  It was a Wegman’s, however, that probably sustained the site.  The company’s blend of supermarket, ethnic buffets and sit-down restaurant proved to be an immediate and consistent hit with people from far and wide.  It occupies the local point of highest visibility along Rt. 422 as you approach from either direction.  The interior of the center languished for some time, however, and it is that interior that drew my attention during my earlier visits (yes, to Wegman’s; I love their cheddar cheese).

What rendered my talk and signing surreal during my most recent visit, however, was that as I stood and spoke, visible to me through the store windows and above the heads of my audience was the now largely open and functioning core of the Providence Town Center.  That core is laid out to evoke the very downtown Main Street shopping experience that shopping malls did so much to destroy.

When you first turn onto Town Center Boulevard off Rt. 29, there is little to indicate that the site is anything other than a variation of the by-now familiar layout of large box stores, restaurants, fitness centers, etc., all surrounded by large parking lots.  Once past these into the center’s interior, things change.   After crossing Broad Street, Town Center Boulevard itself assumes the form of an old downtown street, passing by brick sidewalks, small shops with (diagonal) street parking in front and antiquey street lamps.  Town Center Boulevard terminates as the base of a “T” intersection with Market Street, the thematic climax of this deliberately-designed “downtown” core of an otherwise conventional shopping center.  Dominating the intersection is a MovieTavern, complete with an old-time-evoking marquee alight with movie titles.  The MovieTavern is altogether modern inside, however, taking “dinner and a movie” to a new level.  Patrons can watch a movie while eating their dinner at tables.  Much of its marketing is aimed directly at families.

The remainder of this nostalgia layout rendered in modern colors and materials features small shops fronted by parking spaces along the “downtown” streets.  There is music in the air, but not from street musicians, or even any local music store; it is piped in from hidden speakers.  On a hot summer’s day there was activity out front of the MovieTavern, but not elsewhere on the streets.  People were able to park near to their destination, and spent little time passing between store and car.  As these small locations fill up, the diagonal parking spaces in the core will be insufficient to allow such convenience for all but the fortunate few with the right timing, but not to worry.  Larger, very conventional lots lie all around the site’s core, merging with the much larger stores (and their own sizeable parking lots) along the perimeter.

Providence Town Center is by no means the first such nostalgia-evoking shopping mall, simply the first in an area whose population once traveled to two real downtowns, in Pottstown and Norristown, for its retail and entertainment needs.  The marketing thrust of Providence Town Center is also, in its way, a minuscule version of the oft-recurring American impulse of nostalgia/guilt.  Often that nostalgia is advanced most by those who, while unburdened with guilt over their actions, had a lot to do with creating the conditions for nostalgia in the first place.  The finest example of that impulse is Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Michigan.  That unsurpassed ode to a vanished American lifestyle was brought into being by the man who may have had more to do with ending that lifestyle than anyone else, Henry Ford.  On a more impersonal level, with an enormously lower budget and a great deal less concern for historical accuracy, shopping malls such as Providence Town Center now attempt to recreate—or at least to evoke—the very shopping experience whose death their predecessors had greatly hastened.  Henry Ford possessed both the money and the longevity to artificially recreate the real thing (period items rather seriously rearranged), and Greenfield Village survives to this day, albeit subsumed into a larger theme park.  One suspects, however, that these new old towns, whose authenticity is no more than plaster deep (and the plaster may actually be plastic) will experience a shorter historical trajectory than did the real old towns.  Families may enjoy both dinner and a movie on a summer’s evening, but will they want to stroll down an ersatz Market Street afterward?

Friday, July 26, 2013

The Return of the “Pigeon-Hole Garage”?

By the late 1950s, merchants in the struggling downtown of Norristown, Pennsylvania, had been confronted for over a decade by a problem that still dominates urban centers today: the lack of “conveniently located” space to accommodate the increasing number of automobiles delivering shoppers to their stores.  Then technology seemed to offer a way out of their dilemma, promising to accommodate a large number of cars on a small footprint. An alliance of merchants and local banks, seduced by this near-miraculous solution to what had seemed a physical impossibility, produced the “Pigeon-Hole Garage” (that’s it in the photo to the left, at its 1962 opening).  The technology failed, dealing downtown Norristown both a financial and psychological blow.  Today a new technology has appeared that again promises to “solve” the problem.  It also promises to add fuel to the already white-hot dispute over urban parking garages, and provides me the opportunity to again demonstrate why I choose the title for my blog.

As I recount in my book What Killed Downtown? Norristown, Pennsylvania from Main Street to the Malls, long ago (in the minds of planners, if not historians) and across the continent, the Borough of Norristown was attempting to deal with the two-sided problem brought upon urban grids by the automobile: traffic congestion and parking.  Most attention focused on the parking aspect.  Street parking and a few too-small surface lots were already both clogged and controversial.  The only location with a potentially sufficient footprint for a conventional parking garage of the necessary size lay at the already decaying west end of downtown Main Street.   An extreme form of parochialism among both Norristown’s merchants and its elected representatives ensured that such a solution never really entered the public discourse.  Thus, when a proposal for a parking garage requiring only a footprint that could be accommodated on a small lot in the center of downtown appeared, it seized the imagination of virtually everyone.  The new technology required the driver to only park on a lift; after all occupants had exited, the mechanism would raise the automobile and insert it into a space just large enough for the vehicle itself (hence the term “pigeon-hole”), then extract and lower it upon the driver’s return.  

While questions exist about the firms engaged to build and operate the machinery, it is clear that the banks and businessmen of Norristown placed their bet on a technological dead end. The “Pigeon-Hole Garage” was not just a failure; it was a debacle for Norristown.  The technology did not exactly take America’s urban centers by storm, either.  The concept did not die, of course, and has been reborn in the form of “stacked parking,” which invests a great deal less in the structure itself, and can be found today adding marginally to some parking lots in large cities.

History does not repeat itself, but broad patterns of behavior certainly do, and the new technology at issue promises another replay of an oft-repeated sequence.  The overall technology is generally referred to as the “driverless car,” and has become a frequent subject in a variety of articles, columns and blogs.  A first step—moving vehicles “communicating” with each other to prevent rear-end collisions—is on the horizon.  A potential early step in the direction of the “driverless car” could be the adoption of “autonomous parking,” one of the many examples of ongoing research into aspects of the broader concept.  Letting our cars park themselves could, as a recent article in The Economist suggests, ease our acceptance of letting them drive themselves.  Be that as it may, the technology of autonomous parking alone suggests myriad possibilities for the next generation of disputes over automobiles and the urban grid.  It could also result in the reappearance of the “pigeon-hole” concept on a much larger scale.

 Experiments currently under way by the Volvo company promise to give a car the ability to park itself, not just in the partial way already available on some, but from the garage’s entrance up the (still necessary) ramps, into a very tight space, then out again and back down to the driver, all made possible by the interactive wireless transmission of huge amounts of data.  The enticement is obvious: absent the need to open the car doors for people, each parking space can be smaller, and smaller parking spaces means more spaces per square foot of garage.  Parking garages would still need ramps, but they could be narrowed and tightened, thus adding to space available to shoehorn more cars in (theoretically) complete safety to both panel and finish.

Given the top-level corporate interest, the amount of money already invested and the determination of these and future players to fulfill the promise (and reap the profits) of this new technology, the debacle of the original attempt to “pigeon-hole” parked cars is not likely to be repeated.  This almost-certain future has enormous ramifications, not just for the automobile industry, but also for parking operators, urban planners and entire cities.

As the technology becomes prevalent, we can expect familiar historical patterns to recur.  Some advocates will see in autonomous parking the “solution” to downtown parking woes, and thus promote it loudly, to sympathetic (and deep-pocketed) interest groups.  At the other end of the spectrum, some will oppose it as only exacerbating the other side of the urban grid/automobile conundrum—traffic congestion, or just for extending the historical dominance of the automobile in the U.S.  Some in “the middle” may embrace it as a compromise, shrinking the footprint of parking in urban areas, perhaps without even reducing the total number of spaces available (a true siren song, that magical solution that would “benefit” everyone).  The variations on these basic, oft-repeating responses will be both wide spread and numerous.  They will be offered by those ostensibly well-qualified to offer an opinion (which I certainly am not), but even if you become involved in the details of any of these possibilities, this historian urges you all to, somewhere in a corner of your mind, remember that “the more things change…”