Parking Structures and the Space Race

“Space is deep, space is dark; you still can’t find a space to park.”
-- cartoon posted in Rutgers, State University of New Jersey’s physics library.

While the problem at your school may not be as mind-blowing as the nothingness of deep space, chances are your school has issues about where to park. Old, urban campuses and even newer, more spread-out facilities face the parking crunch more and more. Are there really more cars on campus, and where can you put them all?

The answer to the first question is yes. “There are more single occupancy vehicles on the road now than ever before,” says Christian R. Luz, PE, AICP, national director of parking services, HNTB Corp. “Students, especially those who work part time, really feel the need to bring their car on campus.”

Luz mentions another movement that is driving the car glut. “Schools are developing strong research connections with the private sector,” he says. “That means building state-of-the-art research facilities to recruit people. For older, closed-in campuses there is no place for those new buildings except for surface parking lots.” So not only are schools losing parking spaces, they are adding more people and more cars.

Eventually parking becomes a serious issue and administrators realize that they need more spaces. But just how many more? “That depends on the policy and culture of your campus,” answers Luz. “Students at an eastern urban college may take to car pooling or mass transit more than a spread-out midwestern school.”

Luz admits that no easy formula exists to determine the number of spots needed. He does say, however, that most parking supports itself through usage fees. The more spaces, at a cost of around $10,000 per space, the higher the fees.

Most schools have a 20- or even 30-year master plan in place to help them decide parking issues. But are they always written in stone? “Do as much as you can to provide flexibility in garage design,” warns Luz. “Schools are funny places. They may get an endowment for a building not in the master plan. Then parking has to be reanalyzed.”

Location, Location, Location

Once you’ve committed to building a parking structure, the next step is deciding where to put it. Some administrators think the smartest thing to do is simply build a structure on an already existing surface lot. While that seems like a sensible solution, Luz explains why it may not be the most financially sound. “Garages cost on average $10,000 a space,” he says. “If you replace a 400-space lot with an 800-space structure, you only gain 400 new spaces at a cost of $20,000 a space.” Because of this Luz suggests building a bigger garage or siting it elsewhere.

Placing a garage in the center of campus may also seem like a good idea. The short walk from garage to buildings keeps users happy. However, keep in mind that this solution concentrates traffic, increasing congestion and making it harder for pedestrians and bicyclists.

Remote parking with shuttle service represents another option. For it to work, Luz insists that the shuttles must run frequently and reliably. While it may not be the most popular solution, it’s highly effective. “The student population, which refreshes every four years, gets used to it quickly,” says Luz. “Staff and faculty, who are in it for the long haul, may protest more.”

Does It Have to Be Ugly?

No matter where you site them, parking decks can be ugly, and adjacent communities may protest. “It took two and a half years for a University of Wisconsin, Madison, campus garage to go through the approval process,” Luz recalls. “The best garages incorporate features from adjacent buildings to blend into the campus or outlying community.”

If your campus is primarily brick structures, building a labor-intensive masonry garage may be out of the financial question. However, new products help to fool the eye. “One product tints and stamps the concrete to look like brick,” says Bud Guest, senior vice president of McCarthy, a construction management firm based in St. Louis. “Another option is pre-cast concrete that has a thin layer of actual brick embedded into the front, like a veneer. A bit more expensive than the stamped concrete, this product blends seamlessly.”

No matter the architectural details, Luz suggests you look carefully at light pollution problems in the design stage. “The top of the deck may be too bright for the surrounding community,” he says. “Also watch for headlights shining into neighboring windows as cars swing around the deck’s curves.”

Parking Plus

Mixed use represents another garage trend. “Many of the garages we build devote the first floor to support services,” says Guest. “Police stations, book stores and other functions fit in naturally.”

“Park and play” describes another trend taking hold, particularly on the West Coast. “Many schools are locating recreation facilities, like soccer fields and tennis courts, on top of parking garages,” says Luz. While this solves the problem of diminishing open space for recreation, the resulting facility is an expensive one.

Some schools are going down to create open space. “Building below-grade structures is much more expensive, about $35,000 a space,” says Luz. “But this tends to happen at urban schools where the parking fees are higher anyway.” The resulting open space on top of the structure can be turned into a park, recreational facility or another building.

Safety First

As always, building a safe garage remains high on the list of priorities. Controlling vehicle and pedestrian access makes garages safer, as does designing stairwells that open only from the inside. Open sight lines, closed circuit television and glass-walled elevators and stairwells also contribute to safety. Call boxes are being replaced with state-of-the-art scream alarms. These alarms can differentiate between a human scream and screeching tires. If a scream is detected, the alarm goes off.

The biggest safety feature is having actual human beings in the garage. Monitoring the cameras and taking money are the best crime deterrents.