A battle is brewing over Brooklyn's Red Hook neighborhood, and a major issue is parking. IKEA has brought an old shipping building, which it plans to replace with a megastore, surrounded by a sea of asphalt parking. Baltimore-based Streuver Bros., Eccles and Rouse Inc. wants to turn the shabby, waterfront industrial area into an urban village with hidden parking structures.

For now, IKEA has the city's attention and is proceeding through the zoning process. But Streuver Bros. wants a public debate. “It's a pathetic statement about the city of New York to put surface parking on a great waterfront,” says Bill Streuver, Streuver Bros.' president. His development would be built along a 3-mile promenade on the Erie Basin, the terminus of the Erie Canal. IKEA officials were unavailable for comment.

Such is the importance of parking to a retail or mixed-use development that Streuver is using it as as one of his rallying cries in a bid to redevelop the Civil War era shipyard. What's more, he proposes limiting congestion by offering shuttle buses every five minutes to the nearest subway stop, Carroll Gardens, and water taxis to Manhattan.

With space such a precious commodity and security such a concern, developers are pushing the envelope to creatively design and engineer new types of structures with adequate lighting and easy-to-follow directional signage. Of course, an inventive and fresh perspective on parking costs more. But, increasingly, developers are finding they can't afford not to go that route.

As a result, builders are perfecting the art of squeezing the greatest number of cars into the smallest surface space with the least inconvenience and the most style. “We've seen parking go below buildings; above buildings,” says Mike Martindill, director of business development for Walker Parking Consultants in Atlanta. “We've seen it hidden behind retail structures.”

Vertical and subterranean facilities cost much more than the good old asphalt parking field, and in the case of Red Hook would be prohibitive cost-wise. While the average surface parking spot costs about $1,000 to build, a spot on a deck or free-standing structure will cost eight times as much, and digging underground will cost 15 times as much, Martindill says.

In densely populated markets, though, developers have no choice. “In California, there's no land left,” says Kirk Badii, vice president of R&G Builders Inc. of Irvine, Calif., which specializes in parking lot construction. “Everything is going vertical” or underground. That seems to be the case with many of R&G's current projects, which include a nearly 6-acre underground facility at Studio City, Calif.

For parking towers and decks, developers are increasingly relying on relatively new post/tension technology to squeeze the greatest number of square feet out of a structure. Rather than the older slab designs, which use rebar and concrete, post/tension technology pours concrete around cables, which are stressed after the concrete has cured. “What you get is thinner and stronger,” according to Badii. “This really makes the most of the space you have.”

R&G used the post/tension process in its El Paseo Entertainment Center parking deck, as well as the nine-and-a-half level Tower at Convention Court in Fresno, Calif. Technology is also helping on the revenue end, with computer systems that tell drivers where the free spaces are in a parking facility.

In an ever more image-conscious age, it's not enough to be the guy who can cram the most cars in a small space. More and more developers are demanding that parking facilities blend architecturally and aesthetically with their surroundings — even disappear sometimes. R&G, in the business for two decades, is building a seven-level parking structure in San Luis Obispo, Calif., which will look like an old-fashioned stone building, meant to blend in with the city's renovated downtown retail area.

One relatively recent innovation in parking solutions puts parking decks above the retail space, as at The Shops at Midtown Miami, in Florida. The project, for Developers Diversified Realty, includes some 3,200 structured parking spaces. DDR isn't interested in your everyday free-standing parking deck, according to architect Noel Cupkovic, a principal at GSI Architects in Cleveland, which is designing the space. This job “presents engineering dilemmas,” he says. “The deck itself is an integral part of the shopping experience and has to be super convenient.” For instance, ramping systems are required so cars can enter at different levels to disperse traffic throughout the lot.

The project may use indirect fluorescent lighting, which bounces off the ceiling and gives “a more soothing and secure feeling,” says Cupkovic.

Because no one wants to look up and see parking decks, the Miami project will set back the parking in the structure, and build townhouse-style loft space on the visible street side to lease to artists.

Making parking more attractive can be as easy as posting new directional signs to improve movement, says Laura Zhang, property manager for Triangle Square in Costa Mesa, Calif. “Our goal is to make the shopping experience more enjoyable by offering easier parking and access to all stores,” says Zhang.

Even lifestyle centers, which have a far greater surface to spread out in, are trying to perfect their parking solutions. One current favorite approach for these highly landscaped outdoor malls is to have as many parking spots as possible right up along the storefronts, either parallel to the sidewalk or in a herring-bone pattern. This works particularly well in “Main Street” and “U” shaped lifestyle centers.

“The spaces right up front are psychologically important,” says John Chapman, of Chapman Consulting in Alexandria, Va. Stores benefit when shoppers know that, at least in theory, they could park right along the sidewalk, even if that hope is rarely realized. While only a small percentage of spots can be right in front of the stores, developers do all they can to keep the distance between the customer's car and the stores as short as possible.

Atlanta-based Cousins Properties Inc. has virtually made a policy of this. At the Avenue West Cobb, in Atlanta, no store is more than 180 feet from a parking spot. “It's very important to the feel of the center, to create a more intimate experience,” says Matt Gove, a Cousins spokesman. This works in smaller, U-shaped lifestyle centers such as the Avenue West Cobb and East Cobb or Peachtree, but it's tougher to achieve in larger centers. At the 4,000-square-foot Avenue Viera under construction in Florida, some parking is clustered around a central, park-like area, close to the shops, but more parking field is located behind the theater.

Developer beware, though. Attractively landscaped parking islands may look nicer than the box development style setup — with straight, wide drive aisles that lead pedestrians directly to stores — but they present a greater risk of accidents. A pedestrian is more likely to be struck by a car while meandering from his or her spot to the stores around landscaped, paved areas, than just going in a straight line, says Walker Parking's Martindill.

Bill Streuver is convinced his parking plan and mixed-use design is best for Red Hook. But the question remains: Will the neighborhood become a giant parking lot or an urban village?