Green parking or greenwashing: can a downtown garage be eco-friendly?


[This piece also appeared in Checkerboard City, John’s weekly transportation column in Newcity magazine, which hits the streets in print on Thursdays.]

Every time I pedal downtown via the Kinzie Street protected bike lane I’m confronted by an oxymoron. At 60 West Kinzie stands an attractive, boxy structure covered with loosely arrayed rectangles of greenish glass, glittering in the sun. Piet Mondrian-inspired yellow panels accent the roofline and southwest corner, where they form a backdrop for twelve white corkscrew wind turbines arrayed in two columns. It’s the Greenway Self-Park, billed as “Chicago’s first earth friendly parking garage.” Its logo features a VW Bug with leaves blowing out of the tailpipes rather than noxious fumes.

Everyone agrees there are too many cars in downtown Chicago, so what could have possibly been sustainable about building this eleven-story garage, which accommodates 715 more of them? It opened in 2010, occupying valuable River North real estate, only a stone’s throw from several transit stations. There’s certainly nothing green about making it easy for, say, a guy from Naperville to drive solo to work every day in his Lexus, instead of taking Metra commuter rail.

Trying to keep an open mind, I check out the list of sustainable practices on the website, It says the garage was constructed from “local and sustainable” building materials. The turbines were intended to generate enough electricity to light the building’s exterior. The building’s open-air layout eliminates the need for a ventilation system, which saves energy. A “daylighting” system causes the garage’s indoor lights to dim when there’s sufficient sunlight. Zipcar and I-GO car-sharing services rent spaces in the building, and there are six charging stations for electric cars, plus another six reserved spaces for hybrid vehicles. And, the website says, the garage has a green roof with rainwater cisterns for irrigation.


Washing the glass exterior panels.

In reality, the green roof and cisterns don’t exist yet. They’re slated for installation as part of a swimming-pool deck when Friedman Properties, the Greenway’s developer, completes a high-rise rental building next door. And it’s unclear whether the turbines, which don’t seem to move much even in a fairly strong wind, actually generate significant power or are there mostly for decoration.

I contact the Active Transportation Alliance advocacy group for their take on the facility. “Whenever you build a parking garage you’re increasing the number of vehicle miles traveled and decreasing our air quality,” says spokesman Ethan Spotts. “So a garage would have to be extremely environmentally friendly to mitigate the harmful effects of all that driving. It’s admirable that they’re trying to be green, but are they really doing enough?”

Michael Burton, a sustainable transportation activist who co-founded Chicago’s Critical Mass ride, is less measured in his critique. “A green parking structure!” he emails. “What’s next, a LEED-certified strip mine? Any infrastructure that encourages private automobile use instead of rapid transit, walking and/or biking is inherently environmentally unfriendly. Using green technology to market a new parking structure is simply cynical greenwashing. A s— sandwich with honey mustard is still a s— sandwich.”


The car-sharing companies are listed on the garage’s website as “partner” organizations, so I ask I-GO spokesman Richard Kosmacher whether this status clashes with the nonprofit’s goal of reducing car ownership and CO2 emissions. “If they want to call us a program partner, meaning that we’re a car-sharing program and we have cars there, that’s fine with us,” he says diplomatically. “The fact that this garage holds two I-GO cars is a small step toward the day when there won’t be a demand for multi-level garages in downtown Chicago, but we’re definitely not there yet.”

Last Thursday afternoon Dave Lombardi, vice president with garage manager Standard Parking, graciously took me on a tour of the facility. He shows me the charging stations, which use regular, 120-watt, household-style outlets. “This is not a complete solution—it’s not going to fully charge your car unless it’s here for a long time—but it helps,” he says. We step outside and gaze at the motionless wind turbines. “There’s not a lot of wind out there right now but they do turn when it’s windy, and they look kinda cool,” Lombardi says.


Dave Lombardi.

Next he shows me that the elevator lobbies feature colorful murals with tips on how to live greener, with a different theme for each floor, like water, electricity, food, air and plants. So that customers don’t forget where they parked, each lobby has a screen playing a pop-music video that fits the theme. Floor 10, “light,” displays Madonna’s “Ray of Light” video and the advice, “use compact fluorescent lightbulbs in your closets.” The fifth floor features the suggestion “carpool to work” and, ironically, Gary Numan’s creepy electronica tune “Cars,” about the isolating effects of driving:

Here in my car
I feel safest of all
I can lock all my doors
It’s the only way to live, in cars


Afterward as Lombardi and I sit in the office, I try to tactfully bring up the argument that marketing the building as “earth friendly” does more harm than good because it suggests that choosing to drive downtown is compatible with an eco-conscious lifestyle. “I think it’s great to have green initiatives in a parking garage,” he patiently responds. “If the reasoning is we should eliminate all garages, well, that isn’t living in reality. It’s easy to stand back and criticize, but Friedman Properties has put forth the dollars to pass along the message of environmentalism. In a perfect world all cars would be electric and there would be no exhaust. But to get to a completely green society there are some stops along the way.”

Actually, since all automobiles, electric or not, cause congestion, sprawl, obesity and traffic deaths, in a perfect world there would be almost no privately owned cars, and people would travel mostly by healthy, sustainable modes. Cities like Amsterdam are on their way to achieving this goal, so it’s not a pipe dream. While it’s nice that the Greenway Self-Park incorporates some sustainable elements, the fact remains that the greenest parking garage is the one that doesn’t get built.

Published by

John Greenfield

John has lived in Chicago since 1989 and has worked a number of bicycle jobs, from messenger to mechanic to managing the Chicago Department of Transportation's bicycle parking program, arranging the installation of over 3,700 bike racks. He writes regularly for Time Out Chicago, Newcity, Momentum and Urban Velo magazines and works at Boulevard Bikes in Logan Square.

61 thoughts on “Green parking or greenwashing: can a downtown garage be eco-friendly?”

  1. I’m glad you pulled the curtain back a little bit on this structure. I live down the street, and pass it several times a day, and have always wondered about it. Has anyone seen those turbines move? When you spoke with Mr. Lombardi, did he provide any information on how much energy from these turbines are actually being used to power the structure?

    1. I work next to the building. The turbines only move when there is strong wind from the S, which is not the usual wind pattern (usual is NW). I read a while back that the first wind turbine company that was associated with the project dropped out because they said the turbines would not work with the placement the builder chose. So the builder had to go with another company that was less worried about that.

    2. I saw them move a couple weeks ago. A while back, I asked on Twitter if anyone had seen them move and to send proof. I would sarcastically say that if they were moving it was because of secret motors (the first company hired to consult on the wind turbines bailed after apparently determining turbines wouldn’t spin).
      Now I can’t find the video evidence that person sent me a couple years ago. I recorded my own video a couple weeks ago when I saw them.

    3. My understanding is that the turbines were not properly handled during installation and now only the strongest winds can move them. The turbines were specified by the manufacturer to be assembled vertically but were instead assembled horizontally.

  2. I am really sick of companies using the term “green” as a marketing ploy. The previous company I worked for offered special parking passes for drivers of “green” cars that let them park closer to the door. That’s not environmentally-friendly – that’s just encouraging more car ownership and promoting laziness by not having to walk as far to the entrance. The security guards also drove around in hybrid SUV’s. The company’s campus in the suburbs was not that big and could have easily been patrolled by foot or bike.

  3. I’ve always thought it was nuts that this garage is branded as “green.” It’s definitely just a marketing gimmick. Thanks for the investigation.

  4. It is all a crock! I never have seen the turbines move. Additionally I work in a LEED certified building. I do not get that either. My thinking is that this is the “walk before run” strategy. It forces planners to think about the next generation of buildings, etc to make them better for every one.

    1. My building is apparently LEED certified and it looks just like every other building. I guess all you need nowadays are recycle bins.

      1. As an architecture professional, LEED is a joke. You can achieve low level certification while making only the most minor of adjustments, that have zero effect on the building’s energy use or life cycle costs. At Silver it starts to become noticeable and at Platinum it really is quite impressive… however, there is still a lot of tweaking to be done until LEED evolves beyond “checklist design”

  5. This type of parking garage is at least more “green” than flat parking lots, because at least this type doesn’t make neighborhoods less walkable. In my view, the worst type of parking is lot parking that affects density, making transit and walking less feasible since everything is so far apart.

    The number of people who drive downtown is somewhat of a mystery to me. I drive many places, so I get it — the difference in time is often huge and worth it to me — but I would never drive downtown for a commute. Rush hour traffic is horrible, the garage rates are astronomical, the driving itself is stressful. People who do it must have a reason, if the huge price difference hasn’t deterred them. I can only imagine that they live in places where driving saves tons of time, perhaps because they aren’t on a direct L or Metra route?

    1. My guess is they are mostly well-off suburbanites who think that the CTA is too dangerous, so they feel that they $28/hour fees to park their Lexus’ or BMW’s is justified. Maybe they have never heard of Metra?

      I work in the Loop and most of my coworkers that live in the suburbs take Metra.

      I hear people complain about how traffic in the city sucks and there is nowhere to park, but when I suggest taking Metra or the ‘L’, they scoff at that idea as well. You can’t have it both ways…

      1. I’m guessing that part of it is, some people enjoy long driving commutes. If you have a comfy car with a good sound system, traffic or no traffic, the 31-mile drive from Naperville to the Greenway might be a pleasant 45 minute trip spent sipping coffee and listening to a book on tape. It might be a nice chunk of “alone time” between work and household responsibilities. So if the parking is convenient and money isn’t a big issue, I can see why many affluent people might choose to drive to work, despite the air quality and congestion woes they’re inflicting on others.

        1. That sounds like precisely the same kind of person who honks at me on my bike because I am riding on “their” road…

        2. Yeah I don’t understand “enjoying” the drive downtown at all. I “tolerate” my bike commute. I downright hate it if I have to go downtown (although the bike lane on Madison makes it somewhat tolerable). If I worked downtown, I would just take CTA. As for the CTA being too dangerous, that’s ridiculous. Maybe refrain from using your iPad the 15 minutes between Union Station and your office.

          1. Adam’s theory on how surbanites justify the high cost of driving and parking downtown by saying the CTA is dangerous. It was in the thread above John’s comment. If people really are using that as an excuse to drive downtown, then that’s ludicrous.

          2. I did read that, but I think I misinterpreted. When I see “dangerous” I think “unsafe driving” while Adam, and the most common perception, is that there’s a crime problem with CTA.

          3. Some people I’ve talked to think that riding the ‘L’ is dangerous – especially at night.

            I know many people who don’t want to take Metra in from the suburbs because it is too inconvenient for them, so they drive instead and spend 20 minutes looking for parking. I guess the ability to leave whenever you want and not have to worry about train schedules is worth the extra cost – whether it be time searching for parking or money paid at a garage.

            Some people view driving a car as a necessity, and not a choice. Living in the suburbs, this is often the case. When coming into the city, however, there are alternatives. Some people just have driving so ingrained in their minds that it doesn’t even occur to them that Metra is an option. They brush it off as too inconvenient or the last-mile problem. These same people then complain about traffic, gas prices, and parking prices. Either way you go, there is going to be some cost. I have found that taking a train is cheaper and far less stressful than driving.

      2. Or there are no parking spaces available in their town’s Metra lots. Many have years-long waiting lists.

    2. It’s a strange attitude. Driving is so ingrained into people out here (the suburbs) that they would never think of anything different.

      For many it’s that they want to leave home/work when they leave and not be burdened with a train schedule.

      Metra is very very focused towards the commute. If I want to get to work after 9, say closer to 10, then there is only one train, the 8:40. It’s every hour on the :40 after 8am here.

      Now. People could make the minor sacrifices (I don’t consider it a sacrifice, I’ll never want to deal with traffic) to take the train, but many more would rather keep doing what they always have.

      I once was in a sustainability think group. One person lived in the suburbs and pretty much represented the “car drivers”. Now, this was for a place that had two CTA lines and a Metra station. The Metra line going directly to the guy’s town.

      He made up every excuse in the book to not ride the train. The one I can remember was if it didn’t go every 15 minutes, then it wasn’t flexible enough for him.

      I can understand that somewhat. There are days when I would be necessary for me to come home, but in the middle of the day, the outbound trains can be _more than_ an hour apart. Miss the train and, well, that sucks for you.

      1. I agree with your statement on Metra being too commute-focused. As someone who generally only takes Metra occasionally on the weekends, I have often been frustrated with their schedules. Some lines don’t even run on the weekends, and the ones that do run every two, or even three hours.

        Something tells me that even if Metra ran every five minutes, the man from your group would still find some excuse to drive his car.

  6. I’m glad I’m not the only one who noticed that those turbines don’t actually turn …really ever. I thought that they were still under construction or something. Guess not. If the building was trying to be more “green” as it were, why not have the whole first floor of it or some part up front be a massive indoor bike parking area, especially considering it’s just off the Kinzie bike lane. A sheltered and security monitored bike corral that could accommodate like 100 bikes would probably be relatively popular, especially come winter time.

    1. The developer, Friedman Properties, proposed almost exactly that to the then planning department’s division of sustainable projects and the Bicycle Program. I sat it on a couple discussions about building a bike hub (with showers and a locker room) and even mocked up some drawings on what it would look like. Josh Squire, proprietor of Bike & Roll (and operator of the Millennium Park Bike Station, on behalf of CDOT) was brought in to share his expertise with the developer and be considered as a potential partner in operating such a bike hub.

      I do not recall the exact reasons for them not building a bike hub. I didn’t like how they proposed it on the second floor. I think something about having showers and locker rooms for two sexes and having a sufficient number of showers was something we discussed that could have been a barrier to implementation.

      1. An employee told me there is no bike parking at all in the facility, nor are there showers for employees. There is an Epic Burger on the first floor, plus additional vacant retail property.

        1. I work almost next door. I heard a lot about the bike facilities during construction. It never materialized and I doubt it ever will.

          It really is greenwashing for my limited experience of watching it for the last few years.

          On the plus side, the turbines do get going in a brisk wind. Not that often though.

          1. As part of Epic Burger’s business license, they will have to provide bike parking and provide the number prescribed in the ordinance. I don’t think parking garages are required to supply bike parking according to the ordinance. What they’ll likely do is request that bike parking from CDOT, which is not able to install bike racks on behalf of Epic Burger’s bike parking ordinance requirements.

          2. Emperorcezar: I concur. Started calling this garage about the wonderful bike facilities during construction and after the facility opened to the public. After a couple of calls where I was told bike parking was going in the lower level, it is still unavailable. Now, the developer doesn’t return my phone calls/emails. Greenwashing is an appropriate term. Wonder if the developer planted false “green” publicity to attract financing / grants / TIFF funds from the city.

  7. In my humble opinion, this author is far too idealistic when thinkers of the built environment could use much more pragmatism.

    This stacked garage allows for a number of high-rise buildings around it to maintain the type of density that gives commuters choices including transit, cycling and walking. Let’s not kid ourselves…none of these buildings get completed if a certain subset of users can’t access them by car. Who cares if the turbines are a gimmick?

    Contrast this to the author whose vision of green includes the hypothetical “guy from Naperville” living in an energy-sucking tract home that was prairie just a few years ago. His guy drives to a Metra station and rides a train that passes through a landscape of suburban sprawl. When said guy nears Chicago his train cruises past crumbling buildings, closed schools and vacant lots that resulted from the abandonment of cities. Upon guy’s arrival at Union Station he takes a taxi to his job in River North because guy ain’t walkin’ two miles in his suit…and I can’t blame him.

    The developer of this garage didn’t create the car-centric metropolitan area in which we live. But without providing driving as an option, his competition surely would and we would be left with edge city development—only accessible by car.

    I’m taken aback at how developers of urban garages get such a rough rap by our “thinkers” while few mention the Elston Bypass and other “congestion busting” projects within the city that make driving the de facto option.

    1. The Elston Bypass is as much about safety as improving travel times. It’s horrendous for people on bikes and on buses, too. As someone who rides a bicycle almost exclusively, I dislike how it will increase my travel distance but I like how I can easily move to the front of the line at all of the intersection legs (because of bike lanes that actually reach the intersection edge and bike boxes).

      I would be more sympathetic to parking garages if they could be adaptive to changing demands. For example, a building with condo units can convert some of them to rental apartments, or add retail, or change to office space. An office building could find a hotel for a tenant. Parking garages are stuck.

      1. The Elston Bypass is not about safety. It’s about capacity.

        I don’t care if they provide a butler who carries you and your bike safely from one end of the intersection to the other. Once you get past that area the faster speeds and increased volumes are going to make you regret that you listened to a highway planner about cycling safety.

        Don’t believe it? Try riding the shoulder of the Kennedy.

        1. Did you notice the difference between the first and second version of the plans?
          Version 1 was a highway. Version 2 is when they actually talked to people who build bike lanes (not the best bike lanes, though).

          1. Steven,
            I did notice. And while that will result in a better experience at the intersection it’s going to make the entirety of Elston more dangerous.
            And you know as well as I do that as soon as there are more cars there will be more strip malls and big box developers clamoring for curb cuts–and they’ll get them.
            They can put as much lipstick on this pig as they want…it’s not about cycling it’s about driving.
            Chicago’s greatest intersections are where multiple streets converge such as Clark/Diversey/Broadway or Damen/Milwaukee/North and this would be a much better option for this area.
            Instead, we’re going to rip out existing businesses and homes, prevent Vienna Beef, an iconic Chicago brand from ever expanding (when they go we’ll say they abandoned us), doom the business of a raquet club and create just another nowhere-ville.

          2. Nowhere-ville. I like that description. I agree that such a place will be created. The City has no plans (or ideas) for the huge property in the middle (it will still be owned by whomever owns that now, even though New Elston Avenue will cut into that).

    2. Thanks for the feedback. Sure, consolidating parking into a tower is better than having several surface lots. And living downtown is certainly greener than living in the ‘burbs. But the fact is 62% of Chicagoland residents live outside the city limits, and fortunately commuter rail is an option for many of them, so a garage like this just creates a temptation for them to drive downtown when it’s often completely unnecessary. (As for those last two miles from the train to River North, I’d recommend the water taxi, weather permitting, for a relatively green, serene option. Bike share is going to be great for those last two miles as well – the new bikes will be suit-friendly with chainguards and fenders.)

      While I think our city’s zoning ordinance forcing developers to put in parking needs to be changed to require parking maximums instead of minimums, I don’t have a problem with developers selling stacked parking spaces in the lower floors of high-rise condos and rental properties to the affluent residents. But the Greenway is overwhelmingly being used by people who don’t live downtown but are choosing to drive downtown when there are many greener options. So there’s no way to argue that it’s encouraging downtown density, except for the fact that it’s not surface lot, which would truly be a tragic waste of land.

  8. I don’t think that a parking garage by itself can be green, and the idea that it is environmental friendly was without question malarkey. But there are several things I do appreciate about it. Its better than a surface level lot by far, it has higher capacity and it allows for ground-level retail (Epic Burger just moved in). It also allows for the density of not only the apartment building going up next it, but for the block of 3 hotels being constructed 2 blocks north, which will not have their own parking structures.

    The main thing I appreciate though is that it is a step in re-privatizing parking in the loop. The public’s expectation should move away from free/cheap on-street parking (everywhere but especially in the transit-rich Loop and River North). I would rather drivers park in a private (hopefully not city subsidized) lot at market prices than park on the street. Less street parking means more room for bike lanes and wider sidewalks. I think dense multi-story parking lots have their place if they draw parking away from being subsidized by the city on streets.

  9. There are two issues: The core mission of the structure/business, and the methods they’re using to fulfill their mission. Their mission is to make a profit by providing parking spaces for motor vehicle operators. If you believe that simply by following that mission, they can’t be “green” in any way, then the discussion is over. But if you’ll concede that there will always be people who are in need of parking in the central business district for a variety of reasons, and that the mission is legitimate, then you can move on to evaluating their methods. They have chosen to add certain features to reduce their carbon footprint by using less energy through natural lighting and generating some power through a wind turbine. (It would be much better if it were placed optimally and actually providing power, but it’s a start.) They’re also allowing car share companies to rent spots (hopefully at a favorable price, especially for our hometown non-profit company I-Go) and providing charging stations for electric cars. So, the owner of this structure could have thought, my customers don’t care about my carbon footprint, so I don’t either, and foregone all these features and their costs, but they didn’t, and they should get credit for that.

      1. Yes. Business, shopping, entertainment depend on it. Plus many sales people use their cars on a schedule public transportstion cannot meet. Some of our sales people are now using car sharing programs. They need to be housed soemwhere. My 75 year old mom is not going to take the metra then a bus to shop,on the mag mile. metra/cab is an option but not as convient as parking behind water tower place.

    1. … generating some power through a wind turbine.

      That absurd turbine is what sold me on John’s argument here. Even if place in the optimal position with few buildings around to gum up the wind currents, a small turbine like this would produce a very, very small amount of electricity. Maybe enough to run the lights. Probably not enough to run the elevators. My estimate is that those are in the neighborhood of 1 or 2 kW turbines. I would think it would take about 3 or 4 kW per hour to run the elevators in this garage, depending of course on traffic and how many elevators they have. The turbines might cover it if they ran constantly at peak capacity.

      But to have a chance at running at peak capacity in this location with its turbulent and sporadic wind currents, you have to put the turbines up high. These designers bucked that and put them at street level. Why? So people would see them. It’s show. Marketing, and nothing more.

      Now, I don’t necessarily subscribe to the notion that parking downtown is automatically bad, so I won’t join in that part of this argument. But these people are using false claims to present a veneer of green to sell their product. And that only harms the green movement by presenting a false sense of satisfaction. “I’m doing something for the environment!” somebody might say. “I’m parking in a green garage! What more need I do?”

    1. The typical definition of a green roof, used by landscape architects and planners, is one that uses context-sensitive plant species to reduce the temperature of the roof in the summer (which can decrease AC costs), divert rain water from the sewer, and provide a habitat for birds and insects.

  10. Great article. I wrote a blog post a while ago online because I scrapped the idea for a research paper, but I thought about this when a new dormitory at my old university, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, got LEED certification. I thought it was great to see the university getting involved in ‘green’ activities, but the more I thought about it the less it seemed to make sense. The dormitory building is more than a mile off-campus and not close to any other university buildings with classrooms for most students. The university operates shuttles around-the-clock to bring students between the main campus and their residences (The #21 MCTS bus route which goes directly to the campus, and another route just 2 blocks away, both go directly to or just a few blocks from the main campus).

    These shuttle buses, which are often large yellow school buses (not very “clean”), run every few minutes during the day and are replaced by smaller minivans or hybrid Hondas at off-peak times (but occasionally still a smaller shuttle). I just can’t believe that a building that is serviced by such frequent and redundant bus service could be considered “green.” The greenest way to get to campus would be to walk (not always a selling point in the winter) or take one of the county buses that already runs to campus. Obviously its better than having each individual student drive to campus (which would be impossible), but it still strikes me as odd.

  11. These garages are sorcery! I parked in Standard Parking’s Bulls-themed O’hare garage and it turned me into Joakim Noah. Don’t park at this River North spot unless you want to turn into a Green Man who subsides only on kale and happy thoughts.

  12. I think this is a step in the right direction and maybe it’s not the best location and the lack of inclusion of a bicycle facility is very unfurtunate. But if you took the same green infrastructure and built this as a park and ride in a suburban location feeding Chicago’s city center and included biking, wouldn’t this be an ideal green garage?

Leave a Reply to Dennis McClendon Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *