Nobody likes parking ramps. The moment the arm swings up, the money starts to run out of your pocket. You circle up until you find a floor with space, then troll the rows for a spot. You look at the post where you parked (OK, I’m Level 4 Blue 3A, remember that), then trudge to the elevator lobby, which always feels cold, untidy and bleakly resigned to vandalism.
Parking garages are sullen, joy-sucking blocks, warehouses that sell berths for slumbering beasts. Sometimes you wish there weren’t any, but when you’re trying to find a parking spot you can’t believe there aren’t more.
There’s no good reason parking ramps have to look bad, though. They’re buildings like any other — should it matter that they’re filled with cars or office furniture?
Still, they’re usually not lovely, but now and then you find one that improves the streetscape, or at least does no harm. Let’s take a brief survey of the grim and the good.
Gone and best forgotten
We begin with a vigorous jig on the grave of one of the worst: The ramp at 4th and Nicollet in downtown Minneapolis.
It’s gone. Hallelujah. The new Xcel building required the demolition of a ramp that represented the first phase of downtown’s postwar retail panic. Suburban malls with acres of fresh black asphalt were luring the cars away from tired old downtown, so up went some ramps.
Three were built along 4th Street — two dull dogs and the NSP ramp, which has a curvy appeal that makes it look like someone extruded the Guggenheim out of a soft-serve dispenser. The recently demolished ramp at 4th and Nicollet was everything a ramp shouldn’t be: It was on the premier shopping street, it sat on a corner, and looked like a stack of burned waffles.
Worst by default
But it’s gone, so it’s no longer the worst. That honor may go to City Center’s ramp.
You have to know what it replaced to really rue its impact. Hennepin Avenue between 6th and 7th streets was shabby, dirty and porny by the time it was marked for death. But it still had the exceptional 1940s exterior of the Gopher Theatre and a collection of modest buildings that gave the street some variety. It could have been fixed up; they could have hollowed them out and kept the facades.
Alas, City Center replaced all the old buildings with a parking ramp, a bland expanse that stared across the street at the beaten-down Block E and said, “You’re next.”
Over the years various shades of lipstick have been applied to the pig, in the form of neon, or colorful metal banners that say “Here are colorful metal banners!” but it’s still a dud.
A brick wall
The Mother of All Ramps (aka the Big Hulking Ramps by Target Field, aka the ABC ramps), of course, is the one that sits on the north side of downtown, sucking up the freeway traffic. It’s like a great castle, a forbidden city, but it’s essential until the day everyone goes to work on a train or by Segway or jetpacks.
It’s sheathed in brick, and knowing each part was put in place by hand makes it seem all the more impressive. It’s a good thing they built it when they did: Nowadays there’d be pushback to building something whose massiveness implied the automobile had an unshakable role in some people’s transit decisions.
Color our world
The freeway ramps have some colorful touches, but the winner for Bright and Happy Parking goes to St. Paul’s World Trade Center ramp. A boring old structure was sheathed with great swaths of painted metal. It’s fun, and it has more personality than nearly any other modern building in St. Paul. (Note: This is not a difficult achievement.)
Making a connection
Sometimes ramps are more than a utilitarian necessity. The Haaf Ramp, for example, is a memorial. Named after Jerry Haaf, a policeman who died in a gang killing in 1992, it’s one of the most conscientiously designed ramps in downtown Minneapolis.
The north end of the block has the square Grain Exchange, its lower floors writhing with florid organic carvings. Its immediate neighbor is the Grain Exchange Annex, whose safe rote classicism reminded you how quickly the vogue for Louis Sullivan-style design faded, like a laudanum dream.
The Haaf Ramp isn’t based on either, but takes its cues from the Arts & Crafts movement that paralleled Sullivan’s era: it’s Stickley. Its lines, its proportions, the ledge at the top — it’s as if the architect was inspired after a trip to Gabberts.
For years the ramp has been a terminus on the skyway system, but the Wells Fargo complex around Downtown East has brought a new skyway to the ramp, and what was once a cul-de-sac is now a thoroughfare.
All arted up
Speaking of Downtown East, one of the more underwhelming aspects of the project is the new stadium’s parking ramp, which you might have thought was intended to be something big and tall. Maybe someday. For now it’s a monochromatic structure that shouts “YES, I AM THE OBLIGATORY PARKING FACILITY. SORRY ABOUT THAT.”
It has, however, something that doesn’t quite fit — yet. Big art. Make that huge art. Two-tone pictures of forest landscapes, etched into black metal, looking like something you’d see on a high school notebook in 1973. It’s oddly somber, and utterly un-Vikings.
The large scale of the art isn’t exactly street-friendly. Art that low and big seems to be yelling at you. Perhaps it’ll work better when there’s a sleek black 30-story tower rising above. What matters is that they did something, and made it interesting. At the very least, a ramp has to be interesting these days. Building an ugly ramp is an antisocial act.