With the increasing need to redevelop urban areas, cities have turned to repurposing existing buildings to meet their ever-changing needs. Building repurposing is chosen for a number of reasons. Urban areas are short on available land so finding a place for new builds can be a challenge. It can also maintain the authenticity of a neighborhood’s character and retain architectural elements that come at a cost. With the right teams involved, it’s an urban planning tool to create community, placing complementary buildings together to be most impactful (re: live, work, play, stay).

What happens if we continually repurpose parking garages within a given neighborhood, effectively reducing parking availability there?

We know parking design. We also know most people don’t put much thought into where they park their car, outside of proximity to their final destinations and cost. But we do. There’s a lot of complexity based on footprint, community needs, construction material, standalone, mixed-use, underground, above ground, aesthetic… the list goes on, and our parking design team lives for it.

Parking Garage Repurpose During COVID-19

Parking can be hard to come by so the idea of limiting + repurposing existing parking garages may seem far-fetched. However, we’re already seeing parking garage repurposing trends for both temporary + permanent uses.

As the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic continues, we’ve seen parking garages transform into testing centers. A drive-thru where the only takeout you want is a negative test result. It’s a creative solution – germs are contained within vehicles. While some drive-thrus may be as simple as the one at your bank, parking garages already have the layout to usher patients through the process efficiently.

Is there an application beyond testing, into treatment? New York is looking into it. Virginia’s already done it. They outfitted a parking garage with triage, laptops, HVAC and x-ray capabilities. While we all hope it doesn’t need to be used, they’ve given themselves options, and effectively transformed a parking garage into a healthcare facility.

Current + Future Alternative Transportation

The COVID-19 crisis has moved quickly and our cities have responded as such, but when we look back for years now, trends have led us to a point where we can repurpose parking structures. Some of our friends + colleagues had already eliminated/limited driving due to cost, time lost in commute, or a greater appreciation for the environment. People who do these for transportation are contributing to the need for fewer parking spaces:

  • Walk or bike to work
  • Use a bikeshare or electric scooter rental system
  • Ride the bus or streetcar/subway
  • Utilize ridesharing companies like Uber or Lyft

Cartoon flying car over Cincinnati skyline.

While some alternatives to cars have been around for decades (bus, subway), some are relatively new, forcing communities to adapt (remember when Bird electric scooters first landed?). There could be innovations right around the corner – even flying cars. Companies are genuinely researching feasibility and potential execution dates – companies that you already trust for your transportation needs. If it’s not an if, but when, we could be the ideal customer for when we travel between our two Ohio offices that are just 100 miles apart. We have better ways to use the four hours generally spent in the car to travel there + back.

It spirals. As communities repurpose parking garages, thus eliminating parking options, people choose alternatives that cities then need to adapt to, which leads to the need for fewer parking options. Realistically, will we wake up and not have parking structure representation in urban areas? No. But as structural engineers, we can collaborate with clients to deliver the right usage for their new or revitalized structure. We can work our original parking structure design around a future need to adapt to something else, saving time and money up front (if a future adaptation is expected).

Structural Challenges When Repurposing Parking Garages

We’re currently designing + expect many more repurposing projects. They come with their own structural challenges, and converting a building when either the existing or proposed use is a parking structure is one of the biggest. Repurposing a parking garage into an office building includes a much more than determining the best placement for the conference room.

Structural challenges:

  • Parking garages are designed for a lower live load than other uses, like office buildings, per the current International Building Code
  • Residential applications are designed for the same live load (depending on the code at the time of construction); however, they incorporate more superimposed dead load (re: flooring, HVAC, plumbing, insulation, etc.) that’s not accounted for in parking structure design
  • Typical parking garage floors slope; other applications do not
  • Typical parking garages have ramps; other applications do not
  • Change in use group/occupancy which may affect lateral load design consideration:
    • Hospital
    • Education facility
    • Large gathering space

These are all challenges that can be solved. Owners should choose design teams that not only have relevant experience, but that are creative + collaborative as challenges arise. The built environment is continually leading + adapting to how our communities need to use it and the future of parking garages is one of the trends to watch.

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