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These future-proof parking garages can easily morph into offices or housing

Parking takes up an extraordinary amount of space in cities. These projects are making it easier to convert it to something more useful than car storage.

These future-proof parking garages can easily morph into offices or housing
[Image: courtesy Gensler]

At a 13-story office tower under construction in Hollywood that will soon serve as the headquarters of Netflix, two floors of parking are designed for a different future: As the need for parking dwindles, that parking space can be easily converted into new office space.

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Even today, parking garages are typically underused. In the not-too-distant future, car shares, self-driving cars, increased investment in transit, or simple behavioral change could all shift the amount of parking people think they need. And the U.S. also has far more parking than necessary–in Seattle, for example, there are five parking spaces for every resident. Architects and city planners are increasingly realizing that valuable city space could be put to better use than storing cars.

“There are 500 million parking spaces in the United States and [325 million] people,” says Andy Cohen, co-CEO of Gensler, the architecture firm that designed the Hollywood office tower. “Think about all that real estate, all that attention to parking, that could be revitalized and reused for the future of our cities.”

In downtown Boston, a parking lot will become the site of a 30-story high-rise with affordable housing. In Wichita, Kansas, a former parking garage was converted into an apartment building in 2018. Near downtown Cincinnati, a former parking garage is now a hotel. The U.K.-based organization Make Shift transformed an empty parking garage in Brixton into a new hub for small businesses in 2015, and in 2018 converted a seven-story parking garage in London into studios for artists, coworking offices, and community space. This type of conversion isn’t new–a “hotel for autos” built in Manhattan in the 1930s was converted into a warehouse a decade later, and then became apartments. But it’s happening at a faster rate now, and, increasingly, architects are designing new buildings with a vision of a future of fewer cars.

“We’re kind of at this interesting moment right now,” says Kristen Hall, a senior urban designer at the architecture firm Perkins + Will. “We’re probably going to be seeing full absorption of autonomous vehicles on the streets in anywhere from 10 to 30 years, and a lot of the financing for projects is on a 30-year basis. So if you’re a developer looking at building a parking garage and you don’t really know if you’re going to be able to finance or have a consistent revenue stream for a parking garage for the next 30 years, we’re finally at that point where we’re actually having a lot of developer clients who are questioning the financial feasibility of building parking garages.”

84.51 Centre [Photo: courtesy Gensler]

Some cities are eliminating requirements to have a minimum number of parking spaces in new buildings, and some buildings, like a high-rise in Oslo, include space for parking bikes, but virtually no room for cars. Other buildings, built in areas where developers believe there’s a need for parking now, are designed for future conversion–with building owners deciding that the extra cost is worth it for the potential of extra income in the future. At the Cincinnati headquarters of the data analytics and marketing company 84.51, also designed by Gensler, three floors of indoor parking were designed to convert into office space in the future. (The office can already easily be reached without a car.)

84.51 Centre [Photo: courtesy Gensler]

Retrofitting existing parking garages can be more difficult–they’re not designed for human habitation, and typically have low ceilings, sloped floors, and, in areas like California, aren’t built to the same seismic standards as an office or apartment building. They also can’t handle the same loads. “Being able to say I’m just going to convert this parking garage into apartments is often not really the way to go because it’s structurally not really possible,” says Marcus Martinez, a founder of the Houston-based design firm UltraBarrio, who started studying the potential future of parking garages when he was an urbanism student at MIT and collaborating with others looking at the impact of autonomous cars. “We have to really rethink the DNA of the garage altogether.”

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In a concept called Parked to Place, Ultrabarrio created garages that could transition to other uses. Colocating a parking garage and public transit could help drivers transition to a different commute.  [Image: courtesy UltraBarrio]

But conversion of old garages is possible in some cases–or at a certain cost–as the projects in London and Wichita show. In the Chicago area, a former parking garage at Northwestern University is now an on-campus startup incubator called, predictably, The Garage. Some former garages could be reused as affordable housing or shelters; after creating a concept called the Mod that looked at ways to retrofit old garages with pod-like housing (like in the picture on the top of this article), Gensler is now in discussions with cities such as Los Angeles about the potential of the concept as a solution.

The Garage [Photo: courtesy Gensler]
“If the city and county took their parking structures and retrofit them into homeless structures where we have these pods–inexpensive living units that plug into these parking structures–it could solve some of our homeless problem,” says Cohen.

The Mod [Image: courtesy Gensler]

Underground garages pose greater challenges, since they typically don’t have windows, but also have the potential for reuse. “I actually think that’s interesting–what are all the other things that you can do in these leftover spaces that are less ideal for people?” says Hall. The spaces could potentially be used for urban agriculture, or storage, or data centers.

84.51 Centre [Photo: courtesy Gensler]
As parking shrinks–in lots, garages, and on streets–neighborhoods will change. Some of the space could go to housing. Cities often build about 1.6 parking spaces per new unit of housing; in a parking garage or lot, a single space can use 450 square feet, if you consider the space also needed for cars to move. “Four hundred and 50 square feet is the size of a one bedroom,” says Hall. “In a place like the Bay Area, where we have a housing crisis and every square foot is so valuable and we are literally fighting for every square foot for housing, to require that developers be building parking at these ratios is really limiting the housing supply, especially in areas that are really well served by transit.” (Though San Francisco recently eliminated its parking requirements, many other Bay Area communities still have them.)

Street parking could become a combination of drop-off and pickup zones and green space, or could transform into protected bike lanes. That could change cities further; the majority of less frequent bike riders say that they’d be more likely to commute by bike if they felt safer. Sidewalks could also widen.

“When you look at the best cities in the world, they’re the walkable cities,” says Cohen. “Especially in the U.S., our cities have to start thinking about our streets as people places. And I think cities now can use this as the nexus, as the reason why to take the city streets back for people [from] the automobile. Just think about that real estate that we can take back for parks, for amenities, for people space, space for development.”

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About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.

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