LEWISTON – Think “parking garage.” Does “aesthetically pleasing” spring to mind?

Probably not, yet Lewiston’s development director, Lincoln Jeffers, said he gets compliments on the city garages all the time.

“I was speaking with a business prospect late last week,” said Jeffers recently. “He inquired about the availability and cost of parking downtown. Then, out of the blue he said, By the way, Lewiston has some great looking parking garages.'”

The interest apparently isn’t all local. Platz Associates, the Auburn company that designed and built the city’s three garages, was tapped to write an article for a trade magazine touting its approach to parking garages. The request came from a steel industry spokesman who was impressed with the Platz garages he saw submitted in a design contest – and saw a marketing opportunity.

The article, penned by Platz engineer Steve Myers, appeared in Modern Steel Construction magazine under the headline “Affordable Aesthetics.” In the story, Myers takes the reader into the nooks and crannies of steel garage construction, but you don’t need an engineering degree to appreciate what makes them special: they’re attractive, durable and – happy news for taxpayers – cheap.

The combination puts Platz Associates in the position of poster child for the steel industry, which is trying to capitalize on a one-year backlog in orders for precast concrete, its primary rival in the garage-building industry.

“This is an opportunity for us to penetrate the market in a way we haven’t in the past,” said Bill Pascoli, a spokesman for the marketing arm of the American Institute of Steel Construction. “In general, we’re getting feedback from the parking garage industry and design community about structural steel compared to concrete materials from a cost and delivery schedule point of view.”

Pascoli said he saw the Platz garages in a national design contest and was impressed with their innovative use of steel, especially in the exterior. Although the three Lewiston garages are different, they share other characteristics in addition to steel, such as strong vertical elements that break the dominant horizontal line of a parking garage.

They also incorporate architectural elements from the city’s industrial heritage. The color palette of each garage takes its cue from the city’s bridges and mill buildings. Arcade arches echo the curved granite lintels of many downtown buildings.

And there are the details: The Chestnut Street garage features metal grid work, the Park Street garage has brick panels and the Southern Gateway garage, glass blocks – all tributes to the city’s hard-working past and existing architecture.

Nat Salfas, the architect at Platz who designed the garages, had the additional challenge of working with a citizen advisory committee that had its own concerns. For instance, the committee mandated that the Park Street garage not obstruct the view of the Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul from the steps of the 8th District Courthouse.

The committee also wanted the garages to blend with the city’s distinct architectural characteristics, particularly the Park Street building.

“They wanted it to look like storefronts,” said Myers.

That presented a conundrum for Platz. A solid facade would cost more in materials and convert the garage from its open-air concept to a closed garage. That, in turn, would change code requirements for things like a sprinkler system. Overall, the cost would soar.

Their solution was to incorporate geometric brick panels in the facade that blends the structure into the surrounding architecture, yet allows the garage to keep its open concept and lower cost.

“It gives the garage a personality, so it’s not just a blank, flat surface but has some depth to it,” said Myers.

But for taxpayers, perhaps the most impressive characteristic is cost. A transportation study released in 1998 recommended that the city build 4,500 new parking spaces in order to develop Bates Mill and revitalize the downtown. The study attached a cost estimate between $4,500 and $15,000 per space to build.

Back then, municipal garages typically ran about $12,000 per space, but the first two city garages came in at much less (the Chestnut Street garage cost $6,700 per space; the Park Street garage $8,300 per space).

The Southern Gateway garage averaged $12,700 per space – a reflection of the spike in steel prices due to heavy global demand over the last year. Myers acknowledged that the same garage would cost more to build today because of steel’s increasing cost, but concrete prices are soaring as well.

The architectural firm also considered ways to keep the maintenance costs down. One solution was to prepaint all metal components with a special coating that prevents rust for up to 20 years. Then, as much assembly work as possible was done off site so that welding and cutting would be kept to a minimum at the garage’s permanent location.

“A lot of cuts can occur on site when the workers are putting it together,” said Myers. “That creates opportunities for scraping paint and exposing the metal, which can rust.”

With proper maintenance, the garages should look good and function well for decades, said Myers.

“We’re very proud of them,” he said. “They’re nice architectural structures that fit into the neighborhoods they’re in.”

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