Re-Purposing Parking Garages

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Everyone talks about how autonomous or self-driving cars are coming and when they get here then they might eliminate the need for many renters to own cars. Not everyone agrees they’ll be as ubiquitous or paradigm ‘disrupting’ as boosters claim, and everyone ignores the need to vastly improve and expand public transit which could be just even more transformative than an army of robot cars. In any case, let’s assume, for this post, that demand for parking among renters is likely to shrink in the future, at least in urban cores.

Most developers today want to minimize or even eliminate in-building parking (both underground and above-grade) because it is expensive to construct and takes decades to ‘pay off’ with monthly parking fees. But what if demand for parking shrinks in the future and part of your underground parking garage is permanently empty? What other uses could underground parking spaces be put to?

Conversion to Public/Corporate Parking

One obvious option is to use empty parking spaces as public or corporate parking. The upside is that high demand for parking exists among commuters who drive into dense urban areas and are willing to pay high daily or weekly or monthly fees. The downside is you that have to accept a lot of non-tenant pedestrian and vehicle traffic in and out of your building, which can present security risks and extra maintenance work. Public pedestrian traffic can be managed using separate entrances and elevators, but that means higher construction costs and duplication, and higher security expenses.

Conversion to Residential Units

Another option is to convert parking garages to residential uses, but this doesn’t work with underground parking since residential units (in Ontario) are required to have access to natural light via windows. It might work, however, with above-grade in-building parking: parking garages which are above-grade, an increasingly common design configuration in new rental buildings, are more amenable to conversion to residential uses. Here’s a few articles which discuss this sort of conversion.

https://www.wired.com/2016/11/time-think-living-old-parking-garages/

https://www.curbed.com/2017/4/26/15421594/parking-garages-driverless-cars-gensler

https://www.fastcompany.com/90291136/these-futureproof-parking-garages-can-be-easily-turned-into-offices-or-housing

It turns out there are major challenges. First, floors in parking garages are almost always sloped to allow water drainage, which means they have to be made flat somehow for residential use. Second, floors in parking garages typically are not strong enough for residential use: it turns out that vehicles exert much lower weight per square foot than residential units. In other words, converting parking garages to residential uses is a lot more challenging than it seems, although smart developers who are including above-grade indoor parking in new projects might keep convertibility in mind during their design phase.

Conversion to Storage

Perhaps the simplest option for re-purposing parking garages is to convert a portion into a storage area. This could be accomplished by installing high-quality, highly secure, climate controlled storage units. These already exist as a product and are technically quite advanced, going far beyond the traditional small mesh cages crammed into a musty basement room.

Here’s a company that offers the sort of modern storage units I’m talking about (please note that I have no relationship with this company and include the link for illustration only):

Residents in multi-unit residential buildings always seem to have more stuff than they can fit in their units, so extra storage is always in demand, and I suspect that in bigger markets renters would pay a significant fee for upgraded storage units, especially in urban cores where residential units have lower square footage and where renters can dispense with car ownership and monthly parking fees.