‘A monolithic ugly’ building tells a story

East Market Parking Garage

41 E. Market St., York

The situation

A parking garage, kind of a routine rectangular structure, that has a story to tell?

Well, 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 as even more terrible rioting erupted than in 1968.

So, the parking garage was a symbol of safety – a big, blocky sign that it was safe to venture there.

The East Market Street Parking Garage included a fish pond, a feature no doubt added to provide bit of sizzle to a unremarkable concrete building.

* * *

The newspaper story made passing mention of a related concern in 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 Old Navy. 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 witnessed a suburban mall-versus-downtown retail 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.

The East Market Street parking garage’s $3 million 21st-century renovation did not include the rehab of this deteriorating York Fair mural on its side. Opportunity missed.

The witness

More than 50 years later, suburban shopping centers still 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.

Interestingly, the York Mall, itself, faced new challenges within four years of its opening. Park City Mall opened as did an easy pathway for York County residents to get there: the Route 30 bypass and its Wright’s Ferry Bridge whisked motorists to a different county and a newer mall. By 1989, Sears, JCPenney and The Bon-Ton had moved to newer digs at the York Gallery on the other side of that bypass. And the covered York Mall changed soon thereafter to an outdoor shopping center with Walmart as the lead tenant.

If nothing else, the East Market Street Garage renovations, put into place about 10 years ago, brought 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 by 24-foot York Fair mural tattoo in the late 1990s, a symbolic reminder that the future of the downtown is culture and heritage activities and tourism. But garage renovations did not rehab and preserve this colorful reminder.

It’s interesting how one graying building presents a clear image of the past 50 years in York County.

The renovated parking garage today. This updated look will complement the restoration later this decade of the Yorktowne Hotel across East Market from this garage.

The questions

Some complain of the lack of parking in downtown York, which keeps them from visiting the area. However, the ample off-street parking and parking garages offer visitors many opportunities to find places to stash their car while they shop, eat, or explore. How can we break this myth? How can we attract visitors who fear the non-problem of parking?

They point out that the parking garage makeover is another stitch in York’s reconstructive surgery.

The East Market Street parking garage has long served the Yorktowne Hotel when the hotel had overflow parking. That could occur in the years ahead after the Yorktowne is restored.

Related links and sources; Parts of this story originally ran as ‘Blocky parking garage tells a story’ in the York Daily Record in 2011. Top two photos, York Daily Record. Bottom two photos, Jim McClure


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