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Developers finding new uses for old parking garages

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

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

Built more for convenience than for show, 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 new parking garages should be built in such 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, existing ramps are being redeveloped, particularly those in desirable urban neighborhoods. The Cuningham Group, a Minneapolis architectural firm, has proposed adding 70 to 75 affordable apartments on the periphery of a monolithic '80s-era parking ramp in the popular St. Anthony Main area of Minneapolis. They've dubbed the project the "Rampton Apartments."

Fisher said that more modern parking structures like this pose a big challenge to redevelop because their ubiquitous sloped floors and low ceilings make them better suited as "skateboard or toboggan parks." Ironically, the earliest parking ramps were constructed 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," Fisher said. So they were designed in a manner that could be readopted for warehouse or office use.

That was the case with the former Rayette factory in St. Paul, Minn. Constructed as a millinery building in 1909, the seven-story structure for many years housed operations for Rayette, a hair-care company that championed the home permanent.

By 1971, though, the building was vacant and subsequently failed to attract any meaningful tenants until it was converted to 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 ramp 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 begin redeveloping the structure into 88 apartments – a $25 million project.

Project manager Chris Sherman said the renovation is going well, although there was "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 the building's previous life as a manufacturing operation made its conversion to housing easier due to its tall windows and high ceilings, he said. The apartments are expected to open in the fall of 2014.

That's not to say the process of reconfiguring a parking ramp is an easy one.

Ryan Cos. decided to incorporate an existing parking ramp into its 222 Hennepin mixed-use development in downtown Minneapolis, the home of a former Jaguar dealership. Since 1957, the solidly constructed ramp was used to store autos before sale.

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

"It was definitely a design, development and construction challenge," he said. "We didn't want the experience for the user to feel like they were living in an old ramp. When you walk into it, you have no clue that it's a 60-year-old ramp."

Merging an old building into new construction was challenging "because everything doesn't necessarily line up at first," Ryan added.

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

The 300-space garage, which also includes high-end retail shops, offices, apartments, penthouses and a rooftop restaurant with water and city views, has become a tourist attraction.


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