The Future Ready Commuter Car Park

How do we repurpose and future-proof parking structures as fewer commuters drive to our cities, and how do we prepare new developments to accommodate a conversion in the years to come?

In this article, Ross Harvey, WSP’s Director of Property Structures in NSW, discusses the imperative for adaptive reuse of car parks and ways in which they can support changing travel behaviours, new mobility and community needs.


Parking structures have long been part of the urban landscape taking up substantial amounts of land in highly valued, central locations. They are often considered to be unsightly and visually unappealing that impede the vibrancy of places.


Yet with a little foresight, planning and ingenuity, we can transform parking structures and their future uses to help communities thrive.


“Cities in Australia and around the world are being disrupted,” says Ross. “Requirements for land-use are changing while socioeconomic and technological trends are reshaping the need for parking.


“The advent of electric cars, autonomous vehicles, bicycle and electric scooters, ride hailing/sharing and microtransit as well as increasing investment in public transport are leading to a reduction in private vehicle ownership and ultimately less need for parking spaces.


“Add COVID-19 to the mix, and there are more people walking or riding to work and fewer people occupying offices full-time, particularly as acceptance for remote and flexible working has increased.


“Put simply, we could be seeing a fundamental shift in the demand for car parking and there is a great opportunity for us to maximise the value of people and place as well as sustainability.”


Reimaging the Urban Car Park

There are already many examples in our cities of parking structures being repurposed to other uses.


On George Street in Sydney’s CBD, one iconic building has transformed part of its car parking space into an urban farm complete with vegetable patches, a vertical hydroponic farm and a farmwall. 


Another example is the Central Park Precinct in Sydney where the parking footprint was halved to accommodate car sharing as well as water recycling facilities.


Elsewhere, parking garages have been converted into apartments for owner occupiers, renters and social tenants; urban logistics hubs; data centres; warehouses; and more.


“Around the world and in Australia, WSP has played a key role in parking structures,” adds Ross.


“Recent examples include our involvement in the International Terminal (ITBC) Carpark at the Brisbane Airport, the largest parking facility in the southern hemisphere featuring 157,000m2 with 5,300 car spaces and one of the world’s largest pieces of public art in the world. Our recommendations for future proofing the building included shopping and entertainment, aviation activities, warehousing, accommodation, education and health, vertical and intensive farming as well as other connecting transport uses.


Other projects include Prahran Square’s new 10,000m2 flexible urban parkland with 2-level 500 bay basement carpark located in Stonnington, Melbourne. The ground level consists of lawn, terraces, forest and playground as well as mixed use tenancies. As part of the adaptive reuse considerations in the design the first basement level carpark was created to allow for future alternative retail use so higher floor to floor height compared to a typical carpark has been included along with additional load capacity. The $60m development was completed in 2019.


In the Middle East, we have undertaken extensive work to expand and modify the Dubai Mall including converting part of the existing car parking space into retail. The main challenge was the lower head room of the car park than was required for retail – 3.2m floor to floor. We proposed demolishing alternate floors and strengthening the existing columns to span the double height space, thereby achieving the required headroom for conversion to retail space.


“While there is certainly a push for the adaptive reuse of old parking structures into something new, we have an opportunity to look at the broader picture,” adds Ross.


“As the need for car parking declines in our cities, removing it altogether is not an option at this time. Taking steps to reduce our dependence through adaptive reuse to the needs of the local community is key.”


Creating Flexible Structures for People & Place

Using a flexible approach for parking design will help anticipate future conversion and accommodate evolving community needs as transportation modes and patterns continue to change.


“We know our future world will be very different from today’s in many ways,” says Ross. “Considering that parking structures have a lifespan from 25-50 years, we need to design to beyond current codes which often don’t look far enough into the future.


“For example, by modifying or improving constructability, we can build an eight-storey car park in just two weeks instead of eight weeks. At the same time, by applying a future ready lens and integrating adaptive reuse into our design, we have the flexibility to transition the space to meet evolving community needs.


“Design considerations such as flat floor plates, higher floor-to-floor heights, location of ramps, stair positioning, appealing facades, rooftop access as well as the distribution of services, fire systems, vertical transportation, drone access together with electrical vehicle infrastructure, autonomous vehicle movement, will facilitate future conversions.


“Other considerations include the implications for larger cars, automotive combustible materials and toxicity, concrete vs steel construction and sprinklered vs non-sprinklered and any business continuity considerations for the building.


“While all this comes at a 15-20 per cent higher cost, the savings realised from the faster construction process will enable a zero-cost increase. That is, we can roll the savings into the whole lifecycle costing of the building.


“The benefits are four-fold. Firstly, with faster construction, you achieve less disruption to the community in the short-term. Secondly, the planning process is easier as objections can be mitigated with adaptative reuse plans. Thirdly, the future needs of the community are well catered for through a much longer lifecycle of the structure’s use.


“Lastly, there are significant sustainability outcomes that can be realised by designing for the long-term. The need for structural integrity in car parks means that a significant amount of concrete or steel must be used. By reusing and repurposing the structure, we reduce future waste and additional materials to rebuild. It’s a win-win.”


Looking Forward

Like any operational decision, planning for the parking structures of the future will be asset-driven and dependent on location.


Ross concludes, “We need to consider the complete transportation picture in the context of people and place as well as understand the value of flexibility.


“Given the trends that are evident, it makes sense – socially, financially and sustainably – to future-proof the design of parking structures. It also means building flexibility into the design to enable short-term use changes in response to shocks such as we are currently seeing in the response to the COVID-19 pandemic.”

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