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The Future Of The Parking Garage May Be Car-Free

Between ride sharing, bike sharing, car sharing, walkability and automated vehicles, the future of the car has never been so uncertain. Designers are looking at the mausoleums we build for them and asking themselves what the parking garage can be used for next. Gensler’s Peter Merwin leads the firm's national mixed-use practice and spends much of his time figuring out ways to mitigate the tyranny of the automobile.


“I can tell you, every project I’m working on, I talk about the future of garages in the development,” Merwin said.

He believes the shift to automated vehicles and alternative transportation could be one of the single-largest windfalls of real estate. Increasing the percentage of cash-generating real estate would put more dollars into the coffers of cities, resulting in better infrastructure, better schools and fewer potholes. Likewise, developers would earn more profit.

“I'm an urbanist. I firmly believe if we can get a handle on getting cars out of people-places, we’ll be much happier, and have much more productive real estate,” Merwin said.

With so much space dedicated to parking, a decrease in parking needs could radically shift the design paradigm. But it is still unclear how quickly and to what extent that will happen. Meanwhile, how can developers future-proof parking? 

Peter Merwin and his son in Iceland

Merwin said the two most important design strategies are flat plates and large floor-to-floor heights. Any future use will require level ground rather than the steep slopes typical to garages, so designing flat floors on every level is critical.

To convert to residential, developers need a minimum 11-foot floor-to-floor height. That allows designers to properly core the infrastructure and build out the space. Merwin thinks the best way to future-proof a parking garage is with a 15-foot floor-to-floor height. That opens up the option to convert each floor into lofts, residential, retail or office. Another added benefit is that in the event you need more parking, not less, you can convert a 15-foot level into a double stacking parking floor like those in operation in many dense metros

Fairview District Garage

The cost of future-proofing parking garages is marginal, Merwin said. Developers simply must build taller columns (about five feet more concrete per column) with a little additional steel.

Merwin is using this strategy in the Fairview District parking garage in Houston’s Montrose neighborhood. The structure has one ramp, flat plates and ample floor-to-floor height, perfect for future conversion.  


More often that not, parking is not wholly up to designers. Cities tightly control parking minimums and regulations, and Merwin is starting to challenge some of those rules. His biggest beef is with parking requirements near bars. Although bars are some of the heaviest users of parking, typically 12 spaces per thousand, he thinks it is absurd that cities require higher parking minimums there.  

Merwin thinks the requirement should be zero. He believes requiring parking at a bar is almost asking for a problem; particularly with alcohol involved, it would be better to encourage customers to walk, Uber or take public transit. That possibility is far off, but Merwin is still having the conversation in anticipation of having practice meet jurisdiction.

Seattle's Sinking Ship parking garage

Some cities are already throwing out the rule book, allowing developers to build far less parking if the development is near public transit. In Seattle, it is now legal to build apartments with no parking in certain neighborhoods. A recent study found that parking minimums are costing Seattle renters $246/month. Developers are eager to capitalize on the new ordinance and lower their costs — the city has a waiting list of parking-free building proposals.

“A lot of people will start seeing a lot of these different shared services and say, ‘OK, I don’t actually need to own a car,’” Seattle Department of Transportation Director Scott Kubly told Wired.

That will be music to the ears of developers ... if they and their existing garages are ready.