As parking structures become the choice of many popular centers, more emphasis is being placed on attractiveness, safety and accessibility.

Despite outward appearances, parking structures are the most unlikely of shopping center ambassadors. They can be one of the first things a shopper sees when entering the premises, and they are often the last hurdle to cross after a harried day of shopping. Their potential effect on the shopping experience, therefore, can be as impacting and lasting as the mall itself.

For that reason, builders of parking structures and center managers recognize the importance of collaborating in parking areas' design and development. Shopping Center World associate editor Will Pollock has tapped four industry professionals -- two engineers and two center managers -- to explain how parking structures' contribution to center operation is more important than their cement surfaces might initially indicate.

Contributing to the parking structure article are Kris Anderson, senior vice president for McCarthy, a St. Louis-based provider of design/build, construction management and general contracting services for numerous building types; Tom Seitz, director of sales and marketing for MPS Corp., a Bridgeville, Pa.-based design/build parking structure specialist; William Whiteside, senior vice president and general manager for Phoenix-based Westcor Partners; and Patty Bender, vice president of leasing for Houston-based Weingarten Realty Management Co.

Q: What are some trends affecting parking structure design? Kris Anderson: When combining parking with retail space, there is usually more emphasis on the physical attractiveness of the parking structure. Designing more attractive parking structures is a trend in itself, as a wider variety of finishes are now available. More attention also is being given to the lighting, position of elevators, and overall safety and accessibility. Convenience to customers also enters into the decision to build a multi-level structure. Developers and owners realize that customers have a choice where to shop, and they are going to consider the retail center's proximity to safe, affordable, attractive parking. Major commercial, retail and entertainment owners have planned their facilities around this variable for decades.

Tom Seitz: Parking structures are being designed to include more open and well-lit areas. Stair towers and elevators are being designed using glass for this reason. Pedestrian walkways from the parking deck to the mall are popular and positively affect the aesthetics of the project. With regard to future structures, the emphasis is on durability. High strength concrete additives, epoxy coated rebar, protective deck coatings and two directional post tensioning of cast-in-place decks lead the way to extending the life of the structure and keeping the lifecycle costs in check. These durability items for cast-in-place deck systems also make possible extended warranties from design/build contractors.

Q: What are the top design qualities of a successful parking structure serving a mall or retail environment? Anderson: Convenience is the top design quality of a successful parking structure. Numbers two and three are safety and appearance. Especially as the economy continues to thrive, high-end retailers will spend more on the appearance of parking structures. The economy can be a big factor in a decision to build a multilevel structure that costs typically $5,000 to $9,000 per parking space vs. surface parking which can cost around $1,000 per space to build.

Seitz: The top design features are: architectural facades that complement and/or blend in with the surrounding buildings of the mall area; vehicle and pedestrian circulation; glass stairways and elevators; and facilitating a safe environment with natural and artificial light, wider column spacing and wide span beams for overall visual openness.

Q: What are some qualities that managers look for in a parking structure? How can they affect traffic flow? William Whiteside: Great lighting, great signage and easy access to the property are the standards I want. If properly designed, parking structures can intensify the traffic into a specific entrance or area. Usually this has a positive effect, but if [the structure is] not designed correctly, it can have a large negative effect.

Patty Bender: The drive-in level has to be high enough to accommodate delivery trucks. Also, [the experience with] our parking structure has only been positive because our center had a horrible parking problem. The garage created a lot more parking for customers as well as employees, and customers like the garage because it protects them and their cars from the hot Houston weather.

Q: How do parking structures contribute to the overall look and feel of the center? In what ways can a center's design be carried over in a parking structure? Bender: Our parking garage is in the middle of the shopping center, and our objective was to hide the garage as much as possible. The parts of the structure that do show are designed to blend in well with the center itself, and, in the beginning, it actually became a problem because I think the customers didn't even know it existed.

Whiteside: Our first parking structures, completed approximately 10 years ago, were not initially well-received as the average shopper was trained to park in a surface lot. As time has gone on, we have found that our parking structures can and usually do become the shoppers' first choice, as it helps them with the weather, convenience to certain stores, as well as availability.

Q: What measures do you take to reduce security risks in parking structures? Whiteside: In addition to bike patrols and truck/car patrols, we have found one other little secret that tends to keep the youth groups from gathering in our garages. This feature is adding a sound system in the garage that plays classical music at all times. We have noticed a major reduction in the youth groups loitering.

Bender: We have double the man-power of security officers patrolling, compared to any of our other centers due to the garage. Also, our garage is extremely well-lit.

Q: What are some characteristics you'd like to see in future parking structure design and implementation? Whiteside: Although not economical, I think future parking garages should have "high speed" entrances and exits, frequently seen at airports, to allow customers to get in and out quickly. The garage floors themselves then do not become ramps but instead become flat parking areas.

Bender: As far as leasing goes, we should encourage more stores to construct entrances to their stores from the parking garage, since so many customers are using garages [over the flat lot].

Q: What's in store for parking structures in the future? What types of structures or new features should shopping center developers consider? Seitz: As more and more shopping centers include entertainment areas, parking structures need to meet the increased traffic demand. This involves more developer focus on parking structure durability and the resulting design/builder warrantees that the parking deck remain in top condition for many years. Developers also should consider including more services within the parking structure itself. The main floor is well-suited to retail service businesses, such as dry cleaners, photo shops, shoe repair, copy centers or car washes. Valet parking will become more and more popular in urban areas where consumers are rushed for time.

Anderson: Next to the selection of an experienced contractor or designer, an important choice [in choosing design and features] will be the type of frame, and it is essential that the facility manager review all factors influencing the structure. Durability also will continue to be an important issue for parking structure owners.

Seitz: There will be an expanded emphasis on design/build as the development process of choice, due to the flexibility it gives the developer to fast track the project and have single-source responsibility for the consultation, design, engineering and construction phases of the parking structure project.

MPS Corp. Bridgeville, Pa.-based MPS Corp. provides planning, design, construction operations and financing for parking structures. Services include site evaluation, schematic design, general contracting, assistance in securing financing and parking operations consulting.

Unistress Corp. Unistress Corp., Pittsfield, Mass., provides design, production and construction services for recast/prestressed structural concrete products. The company also offers complete design/build construction services.

Precast/Prestressed Concrete Institute Chicago-based Precast/Prestressed Concrete Institute provides information on the use of precast and prestressed concrete. The organization publishes literature that provides guidance on the planning, design, construction and maintenance of parking structures.

Desman Associates Desman Associates, New York, provides functional planning, design, structural engineering, restoration, testing and evaluation, and construction monitoring of parking structures.

Rust-Oleum Corp. Traffic Zone Striping Paints from Vernon Hills, Ill.-based Rust-Oleum Corp. is a single-component, water-based acrylic coating, available in 1- and 5-gallon sizes. Used for either concrete or asphalt, it is available in blue, yellow and white.

High Concrete Structures High Concrete Structures Inc., Denver, Pa., produces precast concrete for multi-level parking structures. The concrete can be casted and erected year-round.

McCarthy St. Louis-based McCarthy provides consulting/feasibility analysis, design/build, construction management, development leaseback, build-to-suit, turnkey and restoration services.