Two major shifts in consumer behavior involving commuting habits and online shopping have left many retail owners and operators with an excess of surface-level and deck parking. At the same time, tenants need to find new ways of attracting people to their brick-and-mortar stores.

American commuting habits, and therefore their parking needs, are changing. People are increasingly leaving their cars behind in favor of riding transit, ridesharing, walking, biking, and even scootering. According to data scientist Eric Scharnhorst of the parking analytics and consulting startup Parkingmill, most towns have more parking spaces than they have cars.

In suburban and rural markets, buildings often are surrounded by a sea of empty parking spaces. For instance, Jackson, Wyoming, has 27 parking spaces for each of its households, according to Parkingmill. In urban markets, underused parking decks are wasting valuable real estate. Plus, this too-much-parking trend is expected to accelerate with the adoption of autonomous vehicles, which, especially if they are shared, will spend more time in motion instead of being parked.

As online shopping grows more popular, it is becoming commonplace to see fields of empty parking lots at shopping malls and grocery-anchored centers. What, then, is the highest and best use for these unoccupied parking lots and decks?

Walmart is embracing the trend with the rollout of its new Town Center model in several locations around the United States. The retail giant is reorganizing outparcels into comprehensive, themed, master-planned communities along the edges of its parking lots. Each reimagined Town Center plan includes enhanced walkability, street life, and a central community gathering place. Walmart predominantly is showing developers how these properties can be developed. It is a smart move by Walmart; the right mix of uses and programming generates more feet on the street, extends dwell time, and therefore increases spending.

After designing more than 5 million square feet (465,000 sq m) of retail and mixed-use developments all over the world, our experience at Cooper Carry tells us that densifying parking lots is a good idea in the right market. In many neighborhoods, the local mall or grocery-anchored center is the de-facto community gathering place where people bump into their neighbors, celebrate birthdays, and visit Santa. An opportunity exists to enhance the experience in these communities with programmed public spaces, dining, and other complementary uses.

The empty parking lots at these de-facto community centers are ripe for development. And the density and mix of uses should be informed by market conditions and the existing tenant mix.
Here are a few examples of successful approaches:

Reinventing Mall Parking

The Streets at Southpoint in Durham, North Carolina, is a traditional enclosed mall with an outdoor pedestrian district. The retail destination receives more than 1 million visitors per month and is home to North Carolina’s first Nordstrom and Apple stores.

In 2017, Brookfield Retail Properties saw the potential to reenvision underused parking areas to increase development at this highly successful regional mall. In combination with the reduced influence of traditional department stores and changing parking needs, land was available to strengthen the property by adding uses including residential and specialty retail. The team developed a multiphase master plan that removed some retail space and added new construction in the parking lots. The plan we developed connects the already strong vehicular and pedestrian routes with new routes, linking the entire property and its new uses together into a whole greater than the sum of its parts.

Redefining the Experience at Grocery-Anchored Shopping Centers

Florida’s Longboat Key is a 10-mile (16 km) barrier island home to affluent residents, beautiful beaches, and year-round recreation. However, density and real estate codes adopted by the town in 1984 restricted growth. The community sought recommendations from a ULI Advisory Services panel in 2013 on ways to achieve smart, sustainable growth. That panel, on which I served, found that the Publix supermarket was the community gathering place for Longboat Key residents, and there was an opportunity to create a true Town Center there. We created a master plan that incorporated new public and private development around Publix not only to support the local economy, but also to foster healthy lifestyles, walkability, open space, and community events like a farmers market.

This reimagined Town Center plan is still being implemented, though it is well on its way to giving Longboat Key the unique sense of place it deserves. For instance, construction is expected to begin soon on the Longboat Key Arts, Culture, and Education Center, which will leverage existing adjacent surplus parking to reduce its development footprint, preserve vegetation, and improve stormwater management capacity for the broader Town Center.

Repurposing Parking Decks

Because of the way that parking decks are built, whether cast-in-place or pre-cast concrete, they are not easy to adapt for other uses. We are seeing a lot of discussion around turning unused decks into residential space, but that will be problematic, costly, and not the best choice for conversion. Usually, existing foundations are not able to sustain residential or office loads, and the deck-to-deck clearance heights are too low for those uses.

However, these decks would be great staging areas for autonomous vehicles. According to a report by Business Insider Intelligence, 10 million self-driving cars could be on the road by 2020. To prepare for them, building owners should consider providing the electrical infrastructure for vehicle recharging, which could take autonomous vehicles off the street when not in use and free up surface parking spaces.

Also, parking decks are incredibly expensive to provide. On average, it costs $15,000 to $20,000 or more per parking-deck space and $7,000 per parking-lot space. And these amounts represent only the construction costs; the land value would vary greatly. Costs saved on reducing parking expenditures can increase a developer’s ability to include affordable housing and other uses critical to the neighborhood.

Much of our parking is ready for a new life—a rebirth into a more urban, connected community experience. The master plans for these parking lots need to be carefully executed in order to ensure long-term sustainability and added value for the community. The needs of existing land uses need to be taken into consideration. For example, visibility from the road is still of paramount importance for many mall and shopping center anchors, so the new uses should not impede a consumer’s visual connections with the center.

At present, parking spaces do not inspire a strong sense of place. But they can be reimagined into their highest and best use, as the needs of tenants, consumers, and communities change.

ANGELO CARUSI is principal of Cooper Carry’s retail studio.