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Parking Garages Are Getting a Second Life as Places for People

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The rise of driverless vehicles and decline in car ownership means reimagining these ubiquitous structures

Garret Rowland via Gensler

As autonomous vehicle companies launch family-focused public trials and automakers invest in “mobility solutions” instead of cars, we’re entering an age where sharing a vehicle will likely become more popular than owning one. But that memo hasn’t really gotten to cities that continue to mandate outrageous parking minimums and the architects who obediently design gargantuan garages in response.

That’s why Andy Cohen, co-CEO of the architecture firm Gensler, has been traveling the country, helping his fellow architects, urban planners, and city leaders visualize—and prepare for—a shared, autonomous future.

“People are always asking, ‘How is this going to happen?’” says Cohen. “But it’s already happening.”

A future that won’t require nearly as much space for storing our motionless vehicles opens up a whole realm of urban opportunities (not to mention environmental improvements). Currently, parking spaces take up about 25,000 square miles of land nationwide, an area roughly the size of West Virginia. But the problem is worst in expensive, car-centric cities like Los Angeles, where up to 13 percent of all land is devoted to parking. Which is why Cohen likes to focus on parking garages, the behemoth structures that take up space in our downtowns—often occupying desirable real estate that could be used for more offices, retail, or housing.

To illustrate the humble parking structure’s potential, Gensler designed a fictional LA cultural center—“The MOD”—which showcases how parking garages can be reclaimed as civic or public space.

A hypothetical museum built out of a parking garage in LA
A parking garage reimagined as a colorful seating area
A hypothetical downtown LA building named “The MOD” helps Cohen illustrate how a parking garage can transform into a variety of public and cultural uses over time.
Gensler

Cohen points to several details that would allow The MOD’s parking structure to slowly transition over time from a place that only serves cars to one that serves people. By raising the floor height and making sure floors are level between ramps, the space anticipates new uses. The addition of knockout panels and modular sections make walls and ceilings easily removable, allowing light and circulation between levels. And garages can be outfitted with the proper amenities like utility hookups to prepare them for future workspace or retail uses.

Gensler is also one of a handful of architecture firms that’s responding to the parking glut in the real world by designing flexible spaces that can easily convert into other uses. When Gensler designed the 84.51 Centre, named for the consumer analytics company that’s headquartered in downtown Cincinnati, for example, the three levels of parking were designed to convert to office space as needed. This meant creating a facade for those floors that matches the rest of the building, where ventilation screens could simply be swapped out for windows.

84.51 in Cincinnati has three floors of parking nestled between the ground floor and the office floors, but you’d never know it from the sidewalk.
Garrett Rowland for Gensler

The other big difference, says Cohen, is seen in the way entrances to buildings are designed. When people don't need to enter via a parking garage, the “front door” for these businesses will change, incorporating better pedestrian, bike, and transit infrastructure. Big developments like malls, entertainment centers, and even airports have already had to carve out new drop-off circles for people to meet their on-demand vehicles—often replacing the parking spaces that are no longer needed. This transforms the relationship of the building to the street, says Cohen. “Everyone is going to get dropped off in front in the future.”

Besides building for inherent utility decades from now, Cohen also sees an opportunity for developers to save money by anticipating these changes. “For new buildings the requirements for parking are so great it can be a third of the construction costs,” he says. If developers are able to eschew the pricey excavation costs of cavernous below-grade garages, they can focus more on their above-grade floors. “This will allow developers to build nicer buildings.”

A parking garage at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois was designed to easily convert into classroom space.
Garrett Rowland for Gensler

On the client side, Cohen points to a handful of big-name developers who get it, like LA’s mall virtuoso Rick Caruso and Bay Area-based office park builders McCarthy Cook. But beyond having a few savvy developers leading the way, there’s a bigger challenge that architects are up against.

“The problem I’m finding is that the codes and zoning are not changing,” says Cohen. “The cities and counties and states are not responding to these trends—they’re not looking downstream. I think we’re overbuilding for our future and developers can’t do anything about it.” Which means it’s up to architects to anticipate the changes that will soon be transforming our cities.