Urban shopping centers are struggling to meet their parking needs. Without adequate parking, centers have difficulty competing with their suburban counterparts. However, the cost of building a parking deck can be prohibitive, particularly in cities such as New York, Chicago or Boston where property values are extremely high. For many urban retail developers, the solution to this problem may be to partner with local institutions that have their own parking needs, but face the same financial challenges in building new parking. By partnering, developers and institutions alike can share the financial burden of constructing new parking.

Potential partners can be found in a number of places including local commercial businesses, government agencies, and institutions such as universities and museums. The make-up of the ideal partnership depends on local conditions and the individual requirements of each potential partner. For instance, a simple joint venture involving a single institution and a retail developer may make sense in one city, whereas a more complex relationship comprised of several different partners may work best somewhere else.

Clear benefits

While the benefits of sharing development costs are easy to recognize, there are additional long-term financial advantages. For instance, such a partnership allows each member of the ownership team to share the responsibility for managing and maintaining the structure. This can significantly reduce the operational costs borne by each of the partners.

There are non-financial benefits, as well. Most significantly, shopping center owners can use the partnership to increase their customer base. For instance, teaming up with a college or university will assure a steady flow of student parkers into the building. These students become potential customers of the shopping center when they park in the structure.

These benefits are particularly strong in mixed-use parking structures in which parking and retail services are provided in the same building. Each time a patron parks or picks up their vehicle, they are in close proximity to the building's retail tenants. Parkers — particularly parking regulars — often grow to rely on those retail establishments because of the convenience their proximity provides.

One of the keys to success is for parking owners to carefully select their institutional partners to assure that the parker demographics will complement their retail tenants. For example, if the shopping center features stores targeting a younger clientèle — such as Gap or Abercrombie & Fitch — it may make sense to partner with a university or other institution serving younger adults. On the other hand, if the center caters to an older, professional population, with stores such as Macy's, commercial partners may be a better fit.

It is important for the owner of the shopping center to carefully consider what types of parkers, or potential shoppers, would best support the center's retail tenants. Then, seek out a partner that can help deliver that type of consumer.

The importance of design

While parking partnerships can be extremely advantageous, they can also require greater creativity when designing new structures. Because they serve more than one type of parker, they must be designed to meet the unique needs of each. There are a number of factors to be considered in the design of a new parking structure, but a few stand out:

Security: In any new parking structure, security is a paramount issue. However, in a multi-use structure, assuring a safe parking experience can be more challenging, since the structure may serve a number of types of parkers. For instance, if the facility's primary constituencies are comprised of both retail and student parkers, security features must be able to accommodate both groups, each of which will have different parking habits. Shoppers, for example, are more likely to be short-term parkers. They will only be in the structure for a couple of hours, and the latest they are likely to leave the building is when the stores close. On the other hand, students are more likely to be long-term parkers, and may need to use the structure late into the night if they stay on-campus to study after their classes are over.

Of course, there are a number of standard design features that can significantly enhance patron security. For instance, glass-backed elevator and stair towers can greatly improve visibility into and out of the structure. However, utilizing this open design often requires variances to local and national building codes that require fire-rated stair enclosures.

Recent research by the Precast Concrete Institute indicates there is an extremely low life-safety risk in most parking structures. In fact, only one fatality has been recorded in the past four years! Modifying the building codes to increase visibility and security in parking garages, while maintaining appropriate life safety standards, can help assure the safest parking experience possible.

Additionally, adequate lighting in parking bays, drive aisles, and towers can also have a dramatic impact on safety. Finally, signage is a key to assuring that drivers and pedestrians know exactly where they are supposed to travel; a vital consideration since the greatest safety hazard in any parking structure is vehicle/pedestrian collisions. In addition to these standard strategies, there are also many additional techniques that can be implemented to meet the unique safety needs of every user group.

Convenience

A second important consideration is patron convenience. The more constituencies you have using any parking structure, the more challenging it will be to provide a convenient parking experience for each. It is vital that parking be designed and managed in such a way that all parkers can easily and conveniently find the most appropriate parking space and then get to their ultimate destinations.

Appearance

When most of us think of parking, we picture ugly, uninspired gray buildings. In fact, parking design is moving away from the traditional band design to assure that new parking structures fit better into the overall architectural fabric of the neighborhoods in which they are located. This is an especially important consideration in mixed-use structures serving more than one owner. Certainly, the structure's façade should be sufficiently attractive to support the building's retail tenants. In addition, it should appropriately represent the building's other owners.

For instance, if the building is partly owned by a university, the architecture should be consistent with other buildings on campus. Conversely, if the parking structure is partly owned by a commercial establishment, it should have a more business-like feel. Owners and developers should look at architecture as an opportunity to present the parking structure in a creative fashion that will directly support each owner.

A successful approach

One example of how a parking partnership can work is provided by the Sun Trust Plaza Parking Garage in Winter Park, Fla. The garage was designed to provide retail, student, and commercial parking in one of the most exclusive commercial and business areas in central Florida. The challenge for designers was to create a structure that would meet the parking needs of each of these constituencies, while seamlessly blending into this very exclusive neighborhood. The challenge was met with the development of a mixed-use facility providing 863 parking spaces, as well as a blend of retail and office space.

One of the most important considerations in developing the Sun Trust Plaza Garage was its architecture. Using a traditional band design was out of the question, so designers presented the façade as a series of separate sections designed to resemble townhouses. Each section was painted one of three different colors, with each floor featuring a series of openings that look like windows. Also, some sections feature grillwork resembling balconies, while others have decorative flower boxes. At first glance, the building resembles a block of traditional buildings with retail and commercial establishments on the first floor and residential above.

Internally, the garage also offers a number of creative amenities for the benefit of users. Most notable among these is a landscaped courtyard with a glass canopy connector between the parking and the retail and office building. The upgraded design of the garage façade facing the courtyard has created “value added design” for the owner by eliminating the need to reduce rents for tenants facing the garage. Employees of the retail and office tenants often take advantage of the courtyard's teak benches as a pleasant and convenient place to have lunch. In addition, the parking structure also offers storage space in the basement for retailers to use to store excess stock.

In spite of the impressive number of user and staff amenities, the cost of building the garage was impressively low. This is due, in large part, to the precast design implemented by the structure's planners early in the design process. A commitment to partnering by members of the design team, including the precaster, led to a high quality design at a relatively low cost. Because of the local market in central Florida, precast was much more affordable than a cast-in-place approach would have been. Of course, in other markets, the opposite may be true, so it is important for planners to evaluate all of their options before deciding whether to implement precast or cast-in-place.

Obviously, the design features were implemented to address the unique needs of the garage's patrons and owners. Each parking structure has its own individual criteria that must be met. However, whenever any parking structure has more than one owner, great care must go into assuring that the structure can adequately serve each constituency.

An idea's time to shine

For years, retail developers have shied away from urban areas because it was too expensive to provide parking; and without parking, they couldn't compete with suburban malls. But today, developers are discovering that parking doesn't have to be a deal breaker. By entering into parking partnerships with local institutions and businesses, retail developers can build affordable parking, while increasing the customer bases of their shopping centers. Parking partnerships are a win-win proposition for everyone involved.

Rick Kinnell is a principal at Detroit-based Rich and Associates, one of North America's oldest firms dedicated solely to parking design and management. Jim Leonard is an associate vice president at RTKL, one of the world's largest architectural firms.