Parking lots are the gateway that all visitors, students and employees must pass through. As a result, it is important that owners give thought and consideration to this aspect of any building project. In the following article, I will offer some considerations about school parking lots from the perspective of a practitioner, owner and custodian of the public trust with regard to public school facilities.

Parking lots for school districts have several major considerations. Working with your architect, top among considerations is the intended uses and users of parking areas, along with specifications for construction to ensure low long-term maintenance costs.

First of all, consideration should be given to the various users of the parking areas. Quite often, uses of parking lots differ at varying times of day or year. Your architect should know all the types of uses. During the day, parking is used for employees, visitors and, in the case of high schools, students. Uses in the evenings and weekends can be for community meetings, school and community recreational use, and in the case of partnerships between school districts and other organizations such as libraries, community recreation facilities and joint-use theatre facilities by partner organizations.

Secondly, consideration should be given to the site and the construction of the parking lot. Your construction and design professionals should see that the site is sufficiently dry or incorporate provisions in their design to keep the flow of water under the finished parking lot from doing damage. Spending money up front to provide sufficient base and strength materials will save money on replacement and maintenance in the future. This is a huge consideration for schools that consistently lack sufficient maintenance dollars. Heavy-use areas, such as drives and areas where garbage trucks, school buses and heavy delivery vehicles frequently pass, should be concrete or deep-strength asphalt. These types of considerations can be planned by your design professional as long as they are made aware of the areas’ uses.

Local zoning regulations also need to be considered. Vehicles have become smaller, in most instances and, in most cases, 9-ft. by 19-ft. spaces are sufficient, but some zoning codes still require 10 ft. by 20 ft., which will take up more valuable land space. Code requirements also may address requirements for curbing or lack of curbing. Consideration should be given to your environment and uses for curbing. In areas that have snow plowing, curbs need to be substantial to take wear and tear. In warmer areas without snow, curbs can be less substantial or may not be necessary at all. In the post Oklahoma City-bombing world, curbing becomes a security function and may be used to restrict access close to buildings. This must be planned in conjunction with fire and safety forces to permit close access in case of emergency. Often, this means specially accessible drives along the perimeter of buildings. These drives may be designed as large sidewalks, with gates or breakaway pylons that a fire truck can access but the average car would not go through.

Separation of parking areas is important for the functionality of a site. The separation of bus, visitor and employee traffic, when possible, can help diversify the use of a site. If the facility is a large high school or small elementary, this should be part of the planning that will enhance safety, security, efficient flow of the site and flexibility of use. In the example of my school district (pictured below), our newest elementary school has two street accesses — one for buses during the day and community parking for the gym at night, and a second for access for parent drop off and visitors to the left with employees and long-term parking to the right.

School uses of parking lots should be as flexible as possible. While uses may change according to the time of day or year, uses will also change during the next 50 years or more. Built-in flexibly, with multiple accesses, gates to control access at varying times of the day or signage that can change depending on special events, can create such flexibility. Many of these issues were demonstrated in a recent project in my school district. We completed a high school expansion that took the school from 172,000 sq. ft. with 450 parking spaces to 540,000 sq. ft. with 1,400 parking spaces. This facility is somewhat unique in that we have partnerships with our local municipality for use of one wing (100,000 sq. ft.) — the school uses it for phys. ed. and team practices, and the city uses it for community-rec programming. We also have a partnership with the local performing arts association to provide arts programming in the 1,200-seat auditorium during the school dark times, the local hospital for outpatient therapy and aqua therapy use of the swimming pools in the rec wing and the local cable access channel houses their studios in our building. This provides many challenges and issues for parking lot use.

The diagram shows the layout and various uses of the parking lots. Some are dedicated at various times to the different organizations, and some have flexible use, depending on time of day, year or event. Parking lots are coded by color and letter, which tie to the appropriate entrances to the building. For example, visitors parking in lot B would enter the building through entrances labeled B1, B2 or B3, making it simple for strangers to remember where to exit and find their car. It also serves as facility landmarks for safety forces when entering a large facility, so they may enter the most appropriate area for their emergency. The large parking area (Lot D) is normally used for student pick up and, at the end of the day, for buses. It also doubles as the large parking area for access to the football stadium after hours. The north end of this parking lot has normally restricted access to the area neighborhood. This access is used as emergency vehicle access and special event discharge of parking areas (such as after a football game or large music event), but it is normally closed to prevent cut through by nonschool traffic.

This diagram shows a substantial change of normal parking areas based on a change in use. Our district, like many, is having financial issues and has had to make substantial cuts. One of these is in busing for high school students. The major change required us to move the new limited bus use (down from 30 to three) into lot A, move the parent drop off to lot D and move the drive-passed lot J to allow substantial stacking of parent cars during drop off.

Basically, usage planning, long-term cost and flexibility of use should be primary considerations in developing parking plans for your facility. The ease of use, functionality and quality of maintenance of your parking areas will be the first and last impression on your many publics. Make sure you don’t pass up the opportunity for those impressions to be positive.