Atlantic Cities

We Need to Design Parking Garages With a Car-less Future in Mind

We Need to Design Parking Garages With a Car-less Future in Mind
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The Joni Mitchell song "Big Yellow Taxi" rues the day they paved paradise to put up a parking lot. But on East 13th Street in Manhattan, they're doing the reverse. The New York Post reports that a developer has turned a former Hertz garage into an uber-luxury residential building, complete with rooftop foliage (and, yes, parking spaces for tenants). What's most interesting is that the developers decided not to raze the garage but merely to renovate it:

"It has very good bones," says [Dan Hollander, managing partner of DHA Capital] of the garage. "There are over 10-foot ceilings, good columns and the property is 67 feet wide — that’s what really attracted us to it."


Images of the new development at 12 E. 13th St., a former Hertz rental garage. Photos courtesy of the architect.

There's a growing belief among architects and designers that all urban parking garages should be built with these "good bones," which will allow them to be re-purposed in the future. For a variety of reasons, from higher gas prices to greater densification to better transit options, city residents will continue to drive fewer cars. As a result, we'll eventually require fewer parking lots. The ability to adapt a structure rather than tear it down will save developers time, money, and material waste.

"As the auto culture wanes we're going to have a lot of demolition to do, which is unfortunate," says Tom Fisher, dean of the College of Design at the University of Minnesota. "If we're going to build these [garages] let's design them in a way that they can have alternative uses in the future. With just a few tweaks that's really possible."

Fisher says designing parking structures with an eye toward their afterlife is not only logical but rather simple. His three key elements to an adaptable garage design are flat floors, comfortable floor-to-ceiling heights, and enough loading capacity (in other words, strength) to support another structural use. Those types of changes may cost a tiny bit more up front but will provide enormous savings down the line.

The idea isn't exactly a new one. Fisher says architects did something similar in the 1920s, when the demand for cars was still uncertain. As a result, there are apartment buildings, offices, and warehouses in cities across the country that were parking garages in pre-war times. It was only recently that sloped floors became a preferred way to maximize garage space, especially on smaller urban sites.

Still, says Fisher, there's no great reason to build sloped garages. Many of the spatial challenges that gave rise to sloped floors can be overcome with car elevators — especially as digital technology makes locating parked cars and open spaces easier. The main reason architects continue to build sloped garages, says Fisher, is probably the faulty mindset that people will always need cars.

"That's the big mistake — it doesn't anticipate tipping points or phase changes," he says. "We have to start designing the physical environment to accommodate those kinds of changes."

New York isn't the only place where this re-use is happening. During a recent talk, Fisher pointed out a few other examples from the Twin Cities and elsewhere around the country. In St. Paul, a developer is converting a century-old building from a garage into an apartment complex; in Miami Beach, a parking ramp is being used for retail and housing purposes.

Cities can take the lead by rewriting zoning and building codes to require garage developers to meet the minimal adaptability requirements. As for the developers themselves, Fisher says they've been very receptive to the idea, perhaps because they see a less-car dependent future coming. "I think they're worried about building parking garages that don't really have a long-term use," he says.

Who says you don't know what you got 'til it's gone?

Top image: Rob Wilson /Shutterstock.com

Eric Jaffe is a contributing writer to The Atlantic Cities and the author of A Curious Madness (2014) and The King's Best Highway (2010). He lives in New York. All posts »

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