Parking garages ramped up for new uses

Developers turning huge structures into apartments, other ‘carchitecture’

The Cuningham Group, a Minneapolis architectural firm, has proposed adding housing, called the Rampton Apartments, on the periphery of an ’80s-era parking garage in Minneapolis.
The Cuningham Group, a Minneapolis architectural firm, has proposed adding housing, called the Rampton Apartments, on the periphery of an ’80s-era parking garage in Minneapolis.

MINNEAPOLIS — The parking garage could well be the ugly duckling of architecture.

These concrete bunkers dot many urban landscapes. But as young millennials eschew cars for mass transit and as fuel prices spike and land for new development grows scarce, some commercial real estate developers have opted to reconfigure existing garages for new uses, primarily housing.

It’s a nascent, but budding, trend. Leading the philosophical charge is Tom Fisher, dean of the University of Minnesota’s College of Design, who says parking garages should be built in a way that encourages them to be repurposed, if need be.

In the future, “people will still have cars, they won’t disappear,” he said. “But the mass storage of autos because everyone’s on a 9-to-5 schedule will definitely decrease.”

In some cases, parking garages are being redeveloped, particularly those in desirable urban neighborhoods. The Cuningham Group, a Minneapolis architectural firm, has proposed adding 70 to 75 apartments on the periphery of a monolithic ’80s-era parking garage in the popular St. Anthony Main area of Minneapolis. They’ve dubbed the project the “Rampton Apartments.”

Mr. Fisher said that more modern parking structures such as this one are challenging to redevelop because their sloped floors and low ceilings make them better suited as “skateboard or toboggan parks.” Ironically, the earliest parking garages were built with big windows, tall ceilings, and flat floors, traits that make them ideal for use as housing today.

“In the 1920s and ’30s, developers and owners weren’t sure how many people would use cars or whether cars were a passing fancy,” Mr. Fisher said. So they were designed so that they could be readopted for warehouse or office use.

The structure in St. Paul, Minn. was built as a millinery building in 1909. For many years, the seven-story structure housed Rayette, a hair-care company. By 1971, though, the building was vacant and was converted into a 340-space parking garage in the late 1990s. Metal bars replaced the building’s expansive windows.

Developer Sherman and Associates of Minneapolis purchased the building in 2001 for $2.6 million and continued to operate it as a parking garage until recently. Its desirable location near the St. Paul Farmers Market, as well as the impending $63 million St. Paul Saints ballpark and Central Corridor light rail line, prompted the firm to redevelop the structure into 88 apartments — a $25 million project.

Project manager Chris Sherman said the renovation ran into “some tough stuff with environmental abatement, and we’ve also taken four to six layers of the roof off to install a new roof.”

But its previous life as a manufacturing operation made its conversion to housing easier because of its tall windows and high ceilings, he said. The apartments are expected to open in the fall.

That’s not to say the process is easy. Ryan Cos. decided to incorporate an existing parking garage into its 222 Hennepin mixed-use development in downtown Minneapolis, the home of a former Jaguar dealership. Since 1957, the solid facility stored autos before sale.

When the Minneapolis-based developer designed the new Whole Foods-anchored apartment complex, the store and residential units essentially were wrapped around, then built on top of the parking structure, said Mike Ryan, the firm’s director of architecture and engineering.

“We didn’t want the experience for the user to feel like they were living in an old ramp,” Mr. Ryan said. “When you walk into it, you have no clue that it’s a 60-year-old ramp.”

When merging an old building and new construction, “everything doesn’t necessarily line up at first,” he said.

Those challenges aren’t in play if a parking garage is built with a mixed-use sensibility. The poster child of that phenomenon is the 1111 Lincoln Road parking garage in Miami Beach. The snazzy $65 million glass-and-concrete “sculptural parking facility” opened in 2010 and pioneered “carchitecture,” as the New York Times called it.

The 300-space garage, which includes shops, offices, apartments, penthouses, and a rooftop restaurant, is now a tourist attraction.