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EXPERT ANALYSIS: Attractive parking structures

“The most efficient, above-ground structured parking may cost upwards of $7,500 per space.”

In order to build the best parking facility, architects and designers need to know what choices are available and what best fits with their center — aesthetically and economically.

The most desirable and least expensive way to provide the required parking is to build a surface lot. Yet, in some areas land is hard to come by. If so, structured parking is a common alternative.

However, there are drawbacks to building a parking structure. They can be extremely difficult to make aesthetically pleasing and can absorb a significant amount of the construction budget. The most efficient, above-ground structured parking may cost upwards of $7,500 per space. Multiply that by approximately 125 stalls per acre and you are spending between $1- and $1.25-million per acre of land. These figures can make the project very costly. If this route is chosen, an owner would then have to consider other options to show a monetary return.

Another common selection is a parking garage. This structure can also be a challenge for owners — and visitors.

No one wants to enter an environment where he or she feels unsafe. Historically, urban parking facilities have this reputation. The dark walls and ceilings are cold and claustrophobic. Poor lighting and endless spaces invite feelings of uncertainty and insecurity as patrons search for an elevator or stairwell.

Contrast this with on-grade parking. Visitors feel more comfortable walking in the open when they can simply walk directly to a well-marked mall entrance. This is particularly true if open areas are well lit and attractive.

While landscaping makes the parking lot friendly and pleasing to the eye. The question is, how do we envelop these relaxing, secure feelings into multilevel parking structures?

A two-level parking structure demonstrating these characteristics was built for Parkway Place in Huntsville, Ala. The first level is on-grade parking. The floor plates of the second level were built to allow extra vertical space on the ground level.

The upper level is completely open. There are no walls in the parking facility, only the support columns and perimeter barriers. From both floors, visitors can clearly determine where the mall's entrance is located and how far they have to walk. Therefore, customers can relax.

Increased floor-to-floor height, good lighting and reflective ceilings help to create a safeguarded facility for visitors. These elements reduce the uneasiness that accompanies tight, dark spaces.

Lighting levels

According to Dean Pritchard, president of Fort Worth, Texas-based WLS Lighting, new lighting products are being developed to improve the atmosphere of parking decks.

Designers are stepping away from the cavernous look and striving for brighter lighting options. However, they also have to consider the glare extra lighting could pose on drivers.

In response to these issues, manufacturers created a new white-beaded acrylic lens that prevents glare.

This new anti-glare lighting product loses less than 1% of the light output of a regular light. Because of this development, more uniform lighting works throughout the entire parking structure. Pedestrians feel safe, in the well-lit walkways, yet drivers are not challenged by the brighter lighting system.

Location, location, location

Along with lighting, the location of the parking structure is also a major consideration. Building garages under retail buildings is the least desirable option. This route requires telegraphing a support system for the above building structure down through the parking deck.

Beams must be used to bring the building loads onto a column spacing that is compatible with the geometry of parking structure. In this scenario, the added support structures may hinder the optimum open feeling.

A column-reducing strategy is to develop a long-span layout. Short-span parking structures usually require more support columns per space. Besides giving a feeling of openness, long-span systems make maneuvering in the garage easier.

Lloyd Center in Portland, Ore., is an example of a project combining short-span and long-span designs. The original parking structure at this retail facility included a three-story, below-ground parking garage and a two-story, above-ground parking deck.

To create more parking in this development, two long-span decks were included in the design, to be added to each of the two existing garages.

The plan involved drilling through the short-span floors to create support systems for the long-span floors.

Because each of the column systems differed, the long-span supports didn't interfere with the existing short-span support systems. And, as the designers sufficiently coordinated the long-span system with the short-span system, the facility didn't sacrifice any of it's original parking spaces.

Policing traffic

Traffic flow within a structure is yet another consideration with express ramps offering another opportunity to improve a parking garage.

Express ramps are built to direct the flow of traffic from one floor to the next. These ramps can skip floors for quick entrance and exit to upper levels.

With no cars parked on the ramps, traffic doesn't have to yield to cars or pedestrians exiting or entering designated spaces. However, parked ramps yield more parking spaces. Owners need to weigh the option of more parking spaces versus better traffic circulation.

Access options also affect traffic circulation. Free parking allows for the least amount of traffic resistance. Cars don't stop for tickets or pay parking fees — easy come, easy go.

If the goal is to discourage non-shopping center patrons from using the parking structure, various systems can be employed.

Inexpensive or reimbursable charges can be used for the average stay of about two hours. For additional time, the rates get higher, helping to keep the parking facility available for the retailers' patrons.

Access options

A garage can benefit from multiple access options. The more entrances into a parking garage, the easier traffic is introduced into the facility.

University Commons in University Heights, Ohio has a five-level parking structure incorporated into the project. Three of the five levels have access to main streets surrounding the project.

This design provides ease of entry and exit to and from the parking facility. It also gives shoppers easy access directly to the desired level of retail.

Elevators and stairwells also require careful planning. Once cars are parked, visitors have to find their way out. These facilities should be centrally located and well marked. When possible, designers should create open stairwells and transparent elevators.

The open feeling makes visitors feel comfortable. High visibility of the access areas, prevents guests from feeling trapped or lost. Bright, creative, way-finding signage systems make shoppers' arrival more pleasant.

Color and light are the perfect elements to brighten up a parking deck that would otherwise seem dark and confining. Well-lit parking decks increase a sense of security as well as help guide visitors to and from the elevator or stairwell.

All of these factors help make the parking garage more friendly and secure, but how can we design parking decks beneficial to multilevel retail?

Typically, the grade-level tenants have the advantage of exposure as shoppers enter the mall by way of on-grade entrances. A multilevel structure built directly adjacent to a multilevel retail facility can direct traffic to the chosen floor. This equalizes exposure for all tenants and makes access easier for shoppers who are seeking retail destinations on upper levels.

Beachwood Place in Beachwood, Ohio takes advantage of this type of parking. The two-level parking structure has an upper deck leading to Nordstrom's second level entrance, giving visitors a choice. They can either park on-grade, entering the main floor of the building, or park on the second level of the deck for quick entry to the upper floor. The second deck clearly offers added convenience for shoppers.

Showing similar characteristics, the parking facility at Columbus City Center in Columbus, Ohio, allows upper level tenants to take advantage of circulation from the adjacent deck. A large, four-story, parking garage sits adjacent to the mall accompanies this three-level urban retail development.

All levels of the parking structure guide visitors via a footbridge to the third floor. Typically, the upper levels of a mall are least desirable for tenants. However in this situation, the upper level tenants have more of an advantage.

A parking facility should be a comfortable and safe experience for the customer. Careful consideration of all parking facility options can produce a pleasing and convenient parking structure.


to help improve your parking structures:

  • Greater floor-to-floor space reduces the uneasiness associated with dark, confined spaces.
  • Good lighting and reflective ceilings enhance visitor comfort.
  • Minimal number of support column systems make fewer obstacles for pedestrians and drivers to maneuver around. Fewer columns also mean more openness.
  • Long-span designs decrease the number of columns per space.
  • Sufficient ramps increase traffic flow.
  • Appropriate access options help regulate traffic in a way most beneficial to the project. However, some projects would prove more beneficial without controlled access.
  • Multiple entries to a parking facility stimulate the flow of traffic and make it easier for visitors to quickly get to their desired location.
  • Centrally-located, well-marked elevators or stairs steer shoppers from their cars to the shopping center with little frustration and confusion. Open or transparent walls for elevators and stairwells enhance a sense of security.
  • Way-finding signage systems make a parking facility inviting. They offer comfort, assistance and security.


Noel Cupkovic is a senior vice president at KA, Inc. Architecture. He has more than 20 years of architectural and construction experience.

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