York Town Square

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It’s not striking, but blocky parking garage tells a story of York

The East Market Street parking garage opened to downtown York applause in 1969. It was built to meet a need for parking in the eastern section of the downtown. Background posts: York art museum (YOMA) touted as ‘triple gateway’, In search of proof that York Fair is nation’s oldest and York’s Central Market sells steak … and sizzle.

If the authority overseeing York’s East Market Street garage is going to spend $3 million to renovate the 40-year-old structure, it should also preserve the York Fair mural on its side.
I make that point in my York Sunday News column (8/24/08).
Several of the 18 large-scale panels in the Murals of York series are deteriorating. They simply weren’t made to last forever, but to see them fall apart within a decade of their painting seems a bit early.
The mural is only part of the reason the East Market Street garage is a useful artifact of history, as I suggest in the column, ‘Market Street Garage a symbol of a changing city’ :

An artisti’s rendering shows what the Market Street garage is expected to look like after a $3 million renovation. (Update (12/10): Renovations on the parking garage are now complete.)

The coming and goings of parking garages have generated attention in York for years.
Of all things.
York has the reputation, perhaps unfounded, for never offering enough space for parking in its downtown.
In just the past six months, redevelopment projects have targeted the East Market Street Garage, across from the Yorktowne Hotel, and the parking deck, servicing Central Market.
The Market Street Garage faces a $3 million facelift. The West Philadelphia Street deck will either become part of the proposed York Museum of Art or face demolition to make way for YOMA, equipped with perhaps a larger parking structure.
The Market Street Garage can be viewed as an artifact with historical significance, albeit a big, boxy unattractive piece of history bearing a dirty-white facade.
* * *
The East Market Street Garage received its first vehicle in February 1969, and the city promoted it with fanfare as part of Downtown York’s Sidewalk Fair that July.
A story in an advertising section of The Gazette and Daily observed that the garage could accommodate 400 cars, offer protection from the weather and deliver ample additional parking to retailers and government services in that part of town.
“The facility is considered one of the most modern in the eastern United States,” the story claimed.
The garage, it was noted, offered 24-hour attendance and surveillance.
That sentence left a lot unsaid. Increasingly, York officials and businesses were keeping their eyes on city safety.
The previous summer had been marred with rioting. And those touting the garage would have been aware of racial uneasiness in those early days of July 1969. Indeed, later that month, that concern grew to even more terrible rioting than in 1968.
So, the parking garage was a symbol of safety.
* * *
The newspaper story made passing mention of a related concern of the downtown.
The garage would place customers within a short walking distance of everything, shorter than the distance from the perimeter of “a suburban shopping center.”
The York County Shopping Center in Springettsbury Township had fully opened about a dozen years before. That development had extracted Sears from the downtown, but the big three retailers — Wiest’s, Bears and The Bon-Ton — offered fully decorated display windows in this summer of 1969.
But these retail giants and their smaller counterparts east and west on Market Street conducted business with a hitch: They, too, were exploring stores in the brand new York Mall and other suburban shopping centers cropping up in fields surrounding the land-locked city.
The Bon-Ton, for example, had opened a store in the North Mall, today marked by Off-Track Wagering.
The parking garage’s opening in February came just a few months after the Christmas opening of the York Mall, now occupied by Wal-Mart and Sam’s Club in Springettsbury Township.
The summer of 1969 brought a suburban mall versus downtown faceoff for back-to-school shoppers. That was the mammoth suburban shopping center that the East Market Street garage particularly was designed to counter.
The mall emitted signals about safety — and parking.
So, the parking garage was a monument to city efforts to retain a retail base.
Forty years later, suburban shopping centers promise parking and safety. And the city continues efforts to upgrade those areas.
A difference is that city retail trade is largely gone, but downtown parking is valued for cultural, heritage, dining and sports activities.
Parking remains a big deal to people, even though empty spaces are readily available today most anywhere in downtown York.
If nothing else, the East Market Street Garage renovations will bring a new look to what one city official called “a monolithic ugly sitting there on Market Street.”
Naysayers may opine that it’s a cosmetic fix-up job that only masks an impossible downtown resuscitation effort.
But those with more vision quite rightly argue that, unlike retailing in the late 1960s, the arts and other cultural opportunities, clustered fine dining and a winsome new stadium are assets impossible to match in the county’s hinterlands.
They point out that the parking garage makeover is another stitch in York’s reconstructive surgery.
Indeed, the parking garage gained a 120-foot-wide York Fair mural tattoo in 1997, a symbolic reminder that the future of the downtown is culture and heritage activities and tourism. Garage renovations should include rehabbing and preserving this colorful reminder.
It’s interesting how one graying building presents a clear image of the past 40 years in York County.
Springettsbury Township’s York Mall, expeditor of downtown York’s retail demise, received a comeuppance, of sorts, with the opening of the York Galleria in 1989. The retail cycle kept spinning as a 130,000-square-foot Wal-Mart – the first Wal-Mart in Pennsylvania – opened in the vastly revamped York Mall shortly thereafter.

Post edited and updated, 12/10