Parking is a complicated administrative challenge for colleges and universities. It's more than a matter of providing enough parking spaces. Many schools need to get more use out of the spaces designated for parking. This is especially true on urban campuses where land is scarce.

More schools are turning to mixed-use parking garages. These facilities can offer many services in addition to parking: space for educational programs, university offices and even retail establishments. By developing structures that meet a variety of needs, schools can serve more of the university's constituents.

The challenge in developing mixed-use parking is determining what can be accomplished in the non-parking elements of the structure. Planners want to get the most out of a space, and they should try to find ways to use that space to promote the university's mission.

A mixed-use parking structure can do this in a number of ways. Parking that provides more convenient access to university services is one obvious benefit. Creating administrative and educational spaces is another potentially important use. Many universities don't have available land to build needed offices or classrooms. Mixed-use structures can address this need in ways that are particularly convenient for commuting staff and students.

The university experience isn't just about work. Students and faculty need places to eat, shop and play. Mixed-use structures can provide a setting for those activities through retail, restaurant and recreational components.

Planners shouldn't set out to find the highest bidder or settle for random retailers just to fill the space. Instead, they should seek tenants who represent the best possible fit for the campus. Different areas have different needs. Mixed-use parking structures in urban areas often house dry-cleaning businesses and banks to serve workers who use the garages. But this may not be the best choice at a university. Instead, a bookstore or a coffee shop might make more sense on a college campus. For mixed-use development to succeed, it is essential to select tenants carefully.

Start with parking

In pursuing mixed-use structures, colleges and universities should focus first on the parking. Planners need to find space that is as convenient as possible to the classrooms, offices or student residences that the structure is intended to serve. This isn't always easy, particularly in congested areas. Sometimes it's necessary to build new parking structures on land that had been used for parking lots or other university services.

Once a site is selected, the design team can begin determining how much parking is needed. Generally, campus planners will know how much parking they need before the process begins.

In addition to addressing the unique needs of mixed-use parking structures, designers also must tackle more common parking-design issues, such as safety and security, revenue control and maintenance. Mixed-use structures are primarily parking structures that also offer additional services, not the other way around. Parking design is highly specialized, and it is essential for the designers of mixed-use structures to understand the engineering and planning strategies that can ensure safe and convenient parking.

A final design consideration is architecture. When most people think of parking design, they picture ugly gray-banded buildings. Designers should take a more creative approach to the exteriors of mixed-use structures that house retail and other establishments. This is particularly true of facilities on crowded campuses. These structures should blend seamlessly with their surroundings and provide a pleasant atmosphere.

Fortunately, the ugly gray garage is becoming a thing of the past. New design approaches and technologies, such as precast concrete paneling systems, are permitting designers to create beautiful buildings that can stand out as campus landmarks. With facades of brick, granite and even marble, these structures can fit in on most campuses.

Beyond parking

As important as the parking element is, the additional services offered in a mixed-use structure will be the key to a project's success. Campus planners have many choices — retail establishments, restaurants, banks, administrative offices and even classrooms. It's important to select tenants who best support the mission of the facility and the campus. It is also beneficial to have a synchronistic mix of tenants.

Sometimes, the choices will be obvious. If the structure is being developed to address a specific shortfall in office or classroom space, then those services should be considered in the final design. When this is the case, planners should select additional tenants based on the extent to which they can support the building's role as an office or educational facility. If the primary non-parking function is to provide space for campus staff and faculty, planners should look for tenants that can provide the most valuable services. These may include banking facilities or dry-cleaning services.

Conversely, if a facility features classrooms or educational labs, it would make more sense to select tenants that are attractive to students. These may include restaurants, coffee shops (particularly those that are open late) or bookstores.

Sometimes mixed-use structures are intended primarily to provide parking for nearby campus residences. In those cases, planners may choose to include a mix of restaurants, stores, study areas and recreational facilities.

In many cases, campus planners won't have preconceptions about which services should be offered. Their primary concern will be making the best use of the space. In these situations, planners first must identify who will be using the structure. Also, they should evaluate what types of services are provided in the immediate area, such as classrooms, administrative offices or residence halls. Another consideration is the potential effect on the cost of the project. Although it is important to select the appropriate tenants, schools also should consider how tenants' space requirements might affect how the parking structure functions and how much it costs.

Parking and more

Traditionally, campus planners have thought of parking as a service that was useful only to commuters or students who needed to drive to campus. However, many planners now view mixed-use parking facilities as valuable campus resources that can enhance the quality of life for students, faculty and staff. Many university planners are even finding that these structures can help revitalize certain areas on campus by serving as social centers.

Ultimately, mixed-use structures can be powerful campus resources. By taking a strategic approach, campus planners can ensure that their multiuse structures are versatile buildings that help promote a university's vision.

Kinnell is a principal with Rich and Associates, Southfield, Mich. The firm is dedicated to parking design and planning.