Imagine entering a graceful lobby lit by an elegant crystal chandelier, and replete with fresh flowers and a concierge.

Now, imagine this lobby as the glorious centerpiece of a … parking garage. Yes, a parking garage.

Shoppers at The Grove in Los Angeles. enjoy a touch of class when entering or leaving the eight-story structure tucked behind the shops and restaurants at the Caruso Affiliated Holdings lifestyle center.

Mixed-use developers are learning from innovative lifestyle center developers like Caruso Affiliated, which is now transferring this understated elegance to its planned mixed-use complexes. Big developments are searching for ways to please both their neighbors and their guests, for without community approval, the projects wouldn't get built. and without shoppers, they wouldn't survive.

“Your first experience and your last experience with a project is getting into it and out of parking,” says Rick Moses, Caruso chief development officer. “What can be more important?”

Bye, bye American lots

So say goodbye to vast asphalt fields, which are no longer realistic anyway with the high price of land — when it's even available, which in most urban in-fills, it's not.

Another parking solution — for vertical mixed-use complexes where big boxes increasingly are being built on top of in-line stores — is extending the ground-floor footprint by hiding parking behind the smaller in-line stores, says Y.E. Smith, design director for FRCH Design Worldwide. “Smaller shops help screen the view of the parking garage,” says Smith. And once the grade is built for entry the parking could continue underground.

Also, in Baltimore's Fells Point district, Struever Bros. Eccles & Rouse preserved the historical ambiance by wrapping 760 parking spaces seamlessly in new buildings, with retail on the ground floor and condos above. In such tight quarters, shared parking was a priority: Retail takes the spaces during the day and residents take them at night. Still, Struever says residents are guaranteed a space on the same floor as their home.

Sharing is good

Shared parking is a popular solution for mixed-use lots and garages, reducing the need for spaces on average 30 percent, says Mary Smith, senior vice president of Walker Parking Consultants in Indianapolis. The theory goes like this: Office workers and shoppers use most of the spaces during the day; restaurant patrons and condo or apartment residents use them more at night.

Smith, main author of a 2005 Urban Land Institute report on the subject, urges cities to lower existing parking requirements by 20 percent so developers wouldn't be so hard-pressed to find the space. Sharing could be the answer, she says.

“It's hard to get local government to allow you to do the appropriate number of spaces,” says Smith. “You have to go through a variance process that's sometimes adversarial. The Nimbies come out.”

That's because the prospect of fewer spaces raises the ire of neighborhood folks, who don't want strangers parking in and hanging out near their neighborhoods.

Sharing, on the other hand, means developers will “spend less money on parking and have more for buildings and pedestrian connections and amenities,” says Smith.

Yeah, but what about those residents and hotel guests who aren't used to sharing? And what if the experts miscalculate? Retailers cringe at the prospect of shoppers fighting for spaces. And if you own a condo, how far do you want to walk to your front door?

Struever Bros. made it work — because it had no choice. A pioneer in mixed-use developments, Struever Bros. not only wanted to devote limited space to parking, it needed to hide it so as not to alter the charm of an historic neighborhood and still guarantee close parking for residents.

A spot here, a spot there

Designers can tuck extra parking in here and there, but in doing so risk compromising other components of a plan. “I'm seeing a lot of designs that break apart the pedestrian core to put in a street with some parking,” says consultant Brian Johnson, senior transportation engineer with DKS Associates of Tampa, Fla. It's a “mistake,” he says, to create that kind of congestion for a few spaces. “It's probably not worth all the disruption to people's ability to circulate.”

Developers are becoming more sophisticated in weaving together traffic, parking and pedestrians. And, better yet, many municipalities are bringing light rail to developments.

Amy Bonitz, senior development director with Struever Bros., wonders why U.S. culture remains so auto-centric. “You would hope more people would have alternatives beside taking their cars,” she says. “In fact, we find we still need three or four spaces per thousand square feet.”

OK, but that's less than the sprawling asphalt acres around regional malls. Such suburban exemplars park at the rate of six spaces per thousand square feet of retail. Some urban centers, on the other hand, require half that.

Easy does it

Some improvements seem simple: Retailers don't want customers waiting in line to make a left turn to come and shop, says Walter Kulash, partner and traffic engineer with advisory firm Glatting Jackson in Orlando, Fla. — so he suggests giving drivers alternative access to projects, say at 400-foot to 600-foot intervals. Drivers can turn into the development's main entrance at a traffic signal with a protected left turn — or, if they see too many vehicles stacked up at the main entrance, they can make their turn a few hundred feet down the road.

Once inside the project, Kulash advocates a grid of streets instead of a sea of asphalt. A grid calms traffic and accommodates subsequent building of second and third phases, where planned. “If a place has real bones, if it's got a real pattern of streets and blocks and multiple entrances, it's highly adaptable to whatever comes next,” Kulash says. “It's ready-made for development.”

Dressing up those streets, meanwhile, distracts consumer so that they don't mind congestion or having to walk farther to get where they're going. A coffee house, a park, some shops provide a pleasant diversion. People stroll and stop to browse.

Cloaking congestion

Still another advantage of such a grid is that visitors don't see all the traffic — and so they don't worry about it. Traffic spreads out and backs around several corners in the grid instead of standing in a long line. No one sees acres of parked vehicles. Kulash says that in developments with such cloaking, visitors don't think congestion is bad — even when his firm's measures show, in fact, that it is. “If you get people's minds off of traffic,” he says, “they quit thinking it's a problem.”

Such innovations can be a tough sell, however, considering that developers, community leaders, lenders and voters are used to strip malls with one or two entrances and enough short-term parking out front to satisfy time-starved shoppers.

Winter Springs, Fla., wants something entirely different: a downtown. Indeed, many mixed-use developments are creating town centers where none existed before. “You need to do lot of planning and thinking,” says Ron McLemore, city manager of the 35,000-population suburb. “How are you able to park in mixed-use projects where each use has a different parking requirement? And how are you going to minimize your absorption of land for parking?”

Complicating matters in Winter Springs is the state's caution about the multiple entrances suggested by consultant Kulash. A state highway runs through the site, and state transportation officials balk at the idea of multiple access points.

Dungeons of yesteryear

Winter Springs' new downtown has spent 10 years planning for a mixed-use project on 400 acres. The new urbanist-style development will include retail, restaurants, offices and residential. Like any downtown, land prices are high enough that parking ramps will be required.

So parking will be more expensive — but it need not be ugly. Parking ramps aren't the automotive dungeons of yesteryear.

Just take a look at The Grove, for example. In addition to the elegant lobby, Caruso offers parking spaces that are nine feet-two inches wide — eight inches wider than the standard, says the firm. The parking structure features a “speed ramp” that lets vehicles move ahead without waiting for the guy backing out of the only space in sight.

The Grove's parking ramp has sensors that track parking on each floor and electronic display boards that tell entering drivers where space is open.

Costly? Yes. “It's justified because it is so much more efficient,” says Caruso's Moses. “We get a lot more people in and out of here,” he says. “People on the property are in a much better mood when they show up.”

Parking-space sensors cost up to $500 per stall. “It's hard to justify the cost,” says parking consultant Smith. “You don't get that much better turnover. But customers really like it.”

For all the promise of shared parking in mixed use, some elements will still agitate for dedicated parking. Hold your ground, advises Bonitz. “If you dedicate a space to one user it's defeating the impact of sharing the parking,” she says.

In any case, parking will remain a talking point for Nimbies and developers for years to come. Now the owners just have room for less of it, which calls for greater creativity.