Making Parking Ramps Pretty

November 5, 2007
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During construction of the latest addition on Michigan State University’s historic North Campus in East Lansing, passersby consistently inquired what academic department was moving into the new structure between Morrill Hall and the Human Ecology building.

Built by Lansing-based Granger Construction, the building blends in with the century-old architecture of Morrill Hall through the use of a variety of gothic details — stone windows surrounds, stone copings and slate shingle roofing. Mullions and mesh gates in the windows create an occupied, shaded appearance, which is important, as the new brick building is actually a 730-car parking garage.

“From a design standpoint, the challenge was how could a parking ramp blend in with the historic academic buildings that typify North Campus,” said David Clark, director of architectural design for Fishbeck, Thompson, Carr & Huber in Grand Rapids, which designed the structure in partnership with parking engineers Carl Walker Inc. in Kalamazoo. “We put a fair amount of the budget in to making the ramp look like a building, to make it look nice and not like some monstrosity.”

In the words of Bob Nestle, university engineer, “We resolved we were not going to build ugly parking ramps.”

According to Clark, projects like MSU’s Grand River Avenue Parking Ramp are becoming typical of parking facilities today. Obtrusive concrete honeycombs are giving way to more aesthetically pleasing developments. Additional and sometimes surprising uses are being integrated into parking structures.

Grand Rapids Community College has a Lake Michigan Credit Union branch in its north parking ramp and office space in its west ramp. A Fishbeck-designed city parking structure is host to the reigning Grand Rapids Magazine Restaurant of the Year, Leo’s Restaurant at 60 Ottawa Ave. NW. Another city structure is home to parking services offices.

“People are becoming more sensitive to how people react to that street level as they walk by,” said Clark. “It becomes extremely important to think of them as places for people, not just cars.”

Two of the region’s most significant current construction projects tackle these concerns. National design firm Gresham Smith & Partners is attempting to create an attractive public face for West Michigan’s front door by integrating streetscape elements into the planned $138 million, 4,000-space parking structure at the Gerald R. Ford International Airport. URS Corp., in partnership with Carl Walker, is doing the same with the 2,300-space parking structure beneath the Michigan Street Development.

“You don’t see the old concrete structures anymore,” said Dick Temple, URS project manager for the Michigan Street Development. “They need to fit into the urban fabric.”

Much of these aesthetics concerns are mandated by municipalities. The city of Grand Rapids, long with most of the country, requires a fairly intense site-plan review before approving any parking ramps within its boundaries.

URS and its partners worked with the city to plan a streetscape for the Michigan Street Development. Care was taken to create a finished look on Michigan Street that matched the office space further up the hill. An exterior skin was developed to hide the sight of car hoods and ramp lights. Louvers were installed on the south side of the structure to hide the Division Avenue portion of the ramp, which will sit directly beneath the West Michigan expansion of the MSU College of Human Medicine.

The aesthetic concerns are only the beginning. At the Michigan Street Development, care must be taken to insulate the medical office towers above from the noise and vibrations of the parking ramp. Also, that project is being constructed on a hilltop that drops 100 feet along the length of the site. And the ramp will serve as the foundation for four towers. The East Lansing MSU facility required a crane to be built on the inside of the project to allow for the construction in its tight location.

Then, there are the structural considerations.

“You can think of a parking ramp like a bridge as far as durability goes,” Clark said. “It is exposed to the elements 24 hours a day, and you need to build in durability and longevity. … Plus there are concerns for the basic functioning of the ramp, making it easy for people to use and maneuver it.”

Certain features allow ramps to be more comfortable to users, Clark explained, such as wider aisles, sufficient lighting and interior wall paint. More recent designs take into account larger and taller vehicles, specifically SUVs, and the need for wider spaces and additional headroom. CQX

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