Panelists address the audience during the No Parking session at the ULI 2016 Fall Meeting in downtown Dallas, Texas, on Wednesday, October 26, 2016. From left: Michael App of Timothy Haahs & Associates, Inc., Casey Wagner of Walker Parking Consultants, Mike Harris of Brandywine Realty Trust, and Christine Banning of the National Parking Association

From left to right: Michael App, director of architecture for Timothy Haahs & Associates; Casey Wagner, senior vice president of Walker Parking Consultants; Mike Harris, director of parking with Brandywine Realty Trust; and Christine Banning, president of the National Parking Association, speaking at the 2016 ULI Fall Meeting in Dallas.

The development industry is asking the wrong questions about parking, said Brandywine Realty Trust director of parking Mike Harris during a 2016 ULI Fall Meeting session. Instead of focusing on ways to eliminate parking, the industry should be working on new ideas to adapt and improve parking for future projects, he said. “A lot of what we’re thinking about is, what can we do with existing parking garages?” Harris said. “In the future, is there a better use?”

From reconfiguring garages for adaptable uses to creating space for storing drones, the discussion concentrated on new ways to design garages. Some property analysts have predicted that parking will disappear from new developments in ten years, but the panelists said that is simply not realistic.

“I believe the death of parking has been overstated,” said Michael App, director of architecture for Timothy Haahs & Associates. In many cities, leaders are relaxing parking mandates, but developers are still building parking, he noted.

“In Philadelphia, we’re designing in places that don’t require parking, but our clients are building parking,” App said. “They either want to provide the amenity for the client . . . or they want to make money.”

Research conducted by the National Parking Association shows that as the population grows, demand increases for both parking and public transit, said association president Christine Banning, who moderated the event.

But the panelists agreed that parking strategies need to change and evolve to meet new challenges. Traditional parking demand may decrease in the next few years, but parking garages can address the issues of the changing transit landscape.

“It is the great unknown,” said Casey Wagner, senior vice president of Walker Parking Consultants. “What we do know is that parking has to fit into the fabric of development.”

Parking garages can provide charging stations for electric cars; parking for Zipcar and other shared-car programs; storage and maintenance for autonomous cars; and drop-off zones for Uber and Lyft. “You can’t have front-door drop-off in every building,” Wagner said. “But the parking garage is centrally located and does have the ability to handle volumes of vehicles consistently throughout the day.”

Although it may sound counterintuitive, parking configurations need to integrate with efforts to take cars off the road, including bicycles, rail, and buses, he said.

“The next challenge is to really become mini–transit centers,” Wagner said. “It becomes the hub of a development instead of an ancillary use that supports just the driving side.”

Rather than parking going away, the trend toward densifying office buildings is increasing demand for parking, Wagner said. And buildings without parking are at a competitive disadvantage, with tenants wary of creating unhappy employees and clients, panelists said.

Even within the building community, parking is a hot topic of debate. “A lot of our senior managers don’t want to build parking, but the leasing agents want more parking,” Harris said.

Brandywine has doubled its parking assets in the last five years, Harris said. But the company recognizes that parking is a changing business. “It’s about finding other ways to use the garage,” he said.

On one project, Brandywine built a one-acre (0.4 ha) park on top of a 1,600-space garage, to complement mixed-use buildings it erected on either side of the garage, Harris said. And since the facility may not need 1,600 spaces ten years from now, Brandywine is already planning to add retail space in the garage, he said. In another case, the firm is exploring adding exterior compartments to a garage for retail.

“We are always trying to find ways to put something on top of the garage or add some retail, to not only increase revenue but [also] increase activity,” Harris said. The company is trying to strike a balance between “continuing to make money in parking, keep tenants happy, and find ways to utilize” the garages in the future, he said.

Brandywine converted one old garage into a modern facility with a robotic parking system. “It was a site that nobody else wanted to buy and knock down and then build,” Harris said. “So we tried to find a way to turn it into something different.”

Automated garages illustrate one of the basic shifts in the business, he said. “Robotic parking is more vehicle storage than parking, and that’s where we see the transition in future,” Harris said. People still want their cars, but they may not need the car on demand in the same way, he said. “That’s where we see it evolving from a transient parking environment to a parking storage environment.”

In the short term, it is unrealistic to think that parking will be eliminated from projects, App said. Developers are looking for revenue streams, tenants want spaces, and the public is clamoring for more parking. Universities and corporate developers may look long-term in their planning, but the private sector is still focused on the near term, App said.

“I don’t yet have a developer who is interested in planning for the future,” App said. Developers are interested in maximizing profits now rather than trying to predict the future, he said.

But the experts did not deny that demand for parking spaces is likely to slide in the years ahead, especially in new transit-oriented developments.

The key is designing garages that are flexible enough to change with changes in consumer habits, Wagner said. He offered three specific suggestions for “future-proofing” parking projects: 1) raise the second level to allow for alternative uses on the ground floor; 2) design removal or flexible facades, because “you may not want a building that looks like a garage in the future; and 3) build in phases, which will allow for adjustments in later phases, based on demand, and create an opportunity to redevelop one phase when demand slows, without eliminating the entire parking structure.

But parking is not going away any time soon, App said. In some cities, off-street parking fits into a sustainability equation by reducing miles driven, he said. “A garage can be a place to take a car off the road and park and then encourage pedestrian activity at that point,” he noted.