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The future of parking garages

Architectural rendering of a repurposed parking structure in Los Angeles
Architectural rendering of The MOD in Los Angeles showing how a parking structure could be redeveloped for workspace, retail and housing with pre-fabricated modules. Photo: Gensler

Parking garages are staples of car-clogged cities — but they are ugly and take up prime urban real estate. So building owners and developers are looking for new uses for that space.

The big picture: As urban transportation begins to shift, the massive concrete parking structures that sit under or beside most downtown buildings are being repurposed into food delivery kitchens, e-commerce distribution centers, flood protection and even urban farming.

The biggest hurdle is the lack of awareness that that parking garages can be redeveloped to serve people, not just cars, says Diane Hoskins, co-CEO of Gensler, an architecture and design firm.

"An obvious and functional challenge we face is that these structures were not originally designed for human habitation. These spaces often require us to raise the floor height, level the floors between ramps and incorporate design techniques that bring natural light into the space."
— Diane Hoskins, Gensler co-CEO

Changing old zoning codes, which require a lot of parking, could allow developers to put the money for parking decks or garages (upwards of $15,ooo per space) toward affordable housing or other uses, writes Angelo Carusi of Cooper Carry, an architecture and design firm.

What's happening: Parking garages are morphing into more colorful, productive, resilient and surprising uses.

  • In Chicago, a parking garage under Millennium Park is being converted into an e-commerce delivery logistics center.
  • Underground parking garages in L.A. and other cities are turning into shared commercial kitchens for on-demand, delivery-only food services.
  • The roofs of parking garages are being used as urban greenhouses and farms in Denver and Seattle. And in Paris, an abandoned garage was converted into a growing space for mushrooms and roots that don't need sunlight.
  • Near the World Trade Center site in New York, a parking garage known as the Vehicle Security Center now plays a key role in protecting the area's transportation and communication infrastructure from storm surge. (It also has a living wall of plants and its roof doubles as an elevated park.)

A neglected garage in Wichita was turned into 44 high-end apartment units, but other efforts to turn old parking garages into affordable housing haven't gotten far.

  • San Francisco's plan to redevelop a 732-space garage into a mixed-use complex with 100 affordable housing units was nixed after opposition.
  • L.A. worked with Gensler to redevelop a parking garage as supportive housing with pre-fabricated modules, but it hasn't moved past concept stage.

When parking structures can't support residential or office loads, they can be turned into parking spaces for autonomous vehicles and charging stations for electric vehicles.

Go deeper: The companies trying to re-imagine parking spots