Remember when downtown Austin was absolutely covered in surface parking lots? Folks that recall the old days firsthand often have a hard time believing there’s still a ton of parking downtown after decades of growth — although new buildings haven’t been required by the city code to include parking since 2013, almost every tower added to the skyline sits on top of a large garage just the same. In fact, the sheer number of parking podiums constructed downtown in the last few years suggests that the recent initiative to remove minimum parking requirements citywide isn’t quite as radical of a change as its critics seem to imagine, with market forces by and large still driving risk-averse developers to include garages in residential and office projects.
So what happens to all that garage space if technological advances or improved mass transit infrastructure reduces the parking demand in these buildings a few decades from now? At least one project currently planned downtown is working to prepare for this possible future — the 47-floor residential tower in development by local firm Manifold Real Estate at 506 West Avenue, set to add approximately 359 homes near the West Sixth Street entertainment district. According to Ana Kurzan, a senior designer for the project’s architects at Gensler Austin, it’s perhaps the first tower of its kind currently planned in downtown Austin with parking garage levels designed to be more easily retrofitted for future occupancy.
Given the city’s ongoing need for housing, the 506 West tower’s designers at Gensler planned the floor heights of the garage levels and the layout of its internal ramps with a possible future adaptation to additional residential units in mind. “If you think of a garage plate as a four-sided donut around the tower’s core, the garage is designed so the sides with the best views are flat and the sides with the less desirable views contain the ramps necessary to access the subsequent parking levels,” Kurzan says. “We also maintained a minimum clearance of 9 feet, 6 inches, which is slightly taller than the minimum required clearance for a parking garage, to ensure it meets the standard height for apartments.”
These minor design changes don’t add a significant financial impact compared to a traditional parking structure, according to Kurzan — the cost of future retrofitting will include running mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems to the new converted units, but those additional expenses will help the tower continue to maximize revenue if local parking demands evolve. “One of the best incentives for development is the bottom line, and it’s hard to argue with the fact that increasing the amount of rentable square footage in a tower, which would otherwise have a lot of empty parking slabs in the future, makes good financial sense,” Kurzan says. “Parking does generate revenue, but rentable square footage offers much more, making it a significant incentive to design this way from day one when considering the entire lifetime of the building.”
Although this design approach doesn’t solve the issue of way too much parking downtown, it points to the possibility of that parking someday serving a higher purpose. It’s easy to forget that the towers we decide to build in Austin today could stand for generations beyond our own, and even minor attempts to future-proof new construction will make things a lot easier for future residents — just look at the enormous expense of converting office buildings to housing in a post-pandemic market where demand for the latter has rapidly outpaced the former.
— National Complete Streets Coalition (@completestreets) August 25, 2019
“It’s important to continue having conversations about designing for the future of our city, and ensuring the buildings we design today are flexible enough to support the city’s growth and changing needs,” Kurzan says. We’d be inclined to agree, but why don’t we take it one step further — if Kurzan is correct that these features really don’t significantly change the cost of new construction, we’d love to see some incentives for this sort of retrofittable garage design addressed in an updated version of the city’s Downtown Density Bonus Program. Is anyone at City Hall reading this?