Designing a Better Parking Garage


The architects of the Chesapeake Car Park clad the structure in a wide stainless steel mesh that reflects the changing colors of the sky. Image courtesy of Elliott + Associates Architects

Chesapeake Car Park’s full-height atrium has colored fluorescent lighting, functioning as a sculpture and also color-coded by floor to help visitors remember where they parked. Image courtesy of Elliott + Associates Architects

The architects of Chesapeake Car Park, which serves a corporate campus, sought to “add… fun to the experience” of parking. Image courtesy of Elliott + Associates Architects

The parking structure at 15th and Pearl Streets in Boulder, CO, is hidden behind other uses: street-level retail and office space above. Image courtesy BeyondDC/Flickr under Creative Commons License

The 15th and Pearl Streets garage is seamlessly integrated into the streetscape.  Image courtesy of City of Boulder

Panels of colored glass on the exterior of the Santa Monica Civic Center parking garage are illuminated at night, giving the structure a distinctive appearance. Image courtesy of Moore Ruble Yudell Architects & Planners

Close-up view of illuminated panels and sign, Santa Monica Civic Center parking structure. Image courtesy of Moore Ruble Yudell Architects & Planners

Daytime view of colored glass panels on the exterior of the Santa Monica Civic Center parking garage, and solar panels shading the roof. Image courtesy of Moore Ruble Yudell Architects & Planners


Perhaps no type of building in the world inspires as much loathing as the parking garage. These hulking concrete structures create ugly blank space in communities around the country, killing street life and offering little in return except for a sad reminder of just how dependent we are on our vehicles. The parking garage’s cousin, the parking lot, isn’t much better, covering countless acres of land with impervious pavement, thereby creating runoff and sending pollution into nearby waterways. There has to be a better way, you might say. Well, there is. Take a look at a few examples.

Chesapeake Car Park, Oklahoma City, OK

This garage, built on the campus of Chesapeake Energy in 2008, pulls a kind of disappearing act. Its stainless steel mesh exterior is designed to reflect the changing light and colors of the sky, visually softening the structure. Although the mesh walls allow for airflow, as required by Oklahoma law, interior concrete bumper walls also screen the cars themselves—all 791 of them—from outside view. Elliott + Associates, the architects, aimed to make parking more pleasant and less disorienting than in a typical garage by color-coding the floors with interior fluorescent lighting in bright shades. (All the lighting is on energy-saving timers that reduce use during non-peak hours.) A 13-foot-wide central atrium with a light sculpture that echoes the lighting on each level allows sunlight into the structure, and landscaping connects the building to the rest of the campus.

15th and Pearl Mixed-Use Structure, Boulder, CO

You would never know this was a parking garage to look at it, and that’s the point. There’s room for 700 cars in this block-long city-owned structure, but the parking is hidden behind the other uses—street-level retail and office space above. In fact, the parking garage, five stories above ground and two stories below, is quite literally wrapped in the buildings containing the other uses, which are structurally separate and even required separate permits.

The building comes together as a harmonious whole, and effectively connects a downtown pedestrian street, the Pearl Street Mall, with a burgeoning nearby mixed-use neighborhood of condos, offices, and entertainment venues.

Santa Monica Civic Center Parking Structure, Santa Monica, CA

This parking structure, designed by Moore Ruble Yudell Architects and Planners and completed in 2007, kicked up quite a controversy when it was granted Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification—an honor that some people thought shouldn’t be given to any building designed for cars. The 900-space garage has eight levels, two below ground, and manages to provide all that car space in a beautiful, highly functional package.

The street level features retail space on all sides, including a café, ensuring integration into the surrounding streets. Public artworks are incorporated into the design, and panels of colored glass, illuminated at night, make the exterior visually distinctive and attractive. Solar panels on the roof shade parking on that level while providing for a significant amount of the building’s energy needs. A storm water treatment system, 14 spaces for electric cars with public plugs, and free bike parking are also part of the package.

Rutgers University Solar Parking Lot, Piscataway Township, NJ

It’s hard to find the upside of a surface parking lot. But Rutgers University has made a dramatic improvement to two existing lots on its main campus, totaling 32 acres in area, by installing photovoltaic solar panels over the parking spaces—creating the largest solar parking canopy in the United States.

The recently completed project, which cost $40.8 million, was constructed by SunDurance Energy and financed by Key Equipment Finance, which is leasing the canopies to Rutgers for a 15-year term, after which the university will be able to buy the infrastructure at fair market rate.

The 40,000 solar panels, in conjunction with another smaller solar unit that was already in place, generate about 8 MW—enough to provide for 63 percent of the campus’s energy needs. The solar parking lot qualifies for federal tax credits and New Jersey Solar Renewable Energy Credits; all told, Rutgers expects the energy cost savings and tax credits to total $28 million over a 2-year period.

Now if only they would address the runoff issue with some state-of-the-art bioswales and pervious pavement.


“Parking as Art” article about Chesapeake Car Park from Parking Today (PDF)
Profile of 15th and Pearl Mixed-Use Structure from the Congress for New Urbanism
ArchNewsNow Article about Santa Monica Civic Center Parking Structure
Video about Rutgers University Solar Parking Lot (YouTube)