In Paris, France, an urban farming startup has begun using an abandoned parking garage to develop a mushroom farm. Cycloponics, an urban farming startup company, has used the abandoned space to develop a mushroom farm. The farm uses rectangular bales suspended from the ceiling and steam from overhead pipes to produce between 220 and 440 pounds of mushrooms per day. Localized farming carries several economic, environmental, and public benefits, including lower market prices, lower transportation costs, and local hiring.

As Paris realized, many parking spaces in some urban places are unnecessary. Further, parking infrastructure often consumes valuable urban space that municipalities can utilize for more productive purposes. It also has negative environmental, such as adding to urban heat island effect and excess waste. As a result, municipalities are looking to repurpose parking spaces.

In the reimagination of parking infrastructure, the environmental benefits of adaptive reuse generally have come to the forefront of municipality policy discussions. Adaptive reuse is the renovation of pre-existing structures for new purposes. Adaptive reuse entails upcycling previously used structures, reducing the amount of waste, retaining the existing structure’s embodied carbon, and saving the considerable resources needed to create a new structure. Municipalities should wield their state-delegated land use authority to reimagine excess parking spaces and to require parking structures to be built in such a way that they can be reused in the future.

As municipalities and developers have begun to look to repurpose parking infrastructure, they have realized that the way parking structures are currently built does not allow for future adaptive reuse. When parking structures are not built with possible future reuses in mind, they may need to be demolished, contributing to waste and greenhouse gas emissions.

Fortunately, municipalities can require developers to design new parking structures for adaptive reuse in the future. Minneapolis, Minnesota has developed a City Comprehensive Plan with a goal of increasing sustainability by 2040. The Plan addresses the issue of adaptive future reuse of parking structures. Most parking structures are designed with sloped floors and shallow ceilings, making future reuse challenging. Zoning must be in conformance with the comprehensive plan, so parking structures in Minneapolis are required to be designed with sufficient clearance, adequate floor grades, and active uses along street walls.

Sufficient overhead clearance will provide human comfort and allow room for future mechanical system additions. With proper floor grades, non-sloped parking structures can be reused as office space, apartment complexes, or for other future uses that require level spaces. Including active uses along street walls enable parking structures to easily adapt to becoming storefronts, or street front entrances to buildings. Structures that are meant to be converted, however, must be designed to sustain heavier loads.

Municipalities can update their parking requirements to allow more adaptive reuse projects to occur. Parking is expensive and requires significant space, costing around $550/space. Many municipalities’ zoning codes set minimum parking requirements for developments based on historic parking demands, not accounting for current parking demands, which are typically lower. Thus, reducing or eliminating parking requirements will not only reduce the cost and space to meet zoning requirements, but also make adaptive reuse a more accessible option. For example, Los Angeles’ Adaptive Reuse Ordinance has incorporated these ideas by exempting adaptive reuse projects from parking requirements.

Additionally, many adaptive reuse projects face opposition from neighborhood groups with parking concerns. These neighbors assume that parking will overflow onto neighborhood streets. One solution is to offer existing neighbors permit parking to quell their concerns. For example, Santa Clara, California incorporates neighborhoods near “parking generators” (e.g. hospitals, transit stations, business complexes, commercial areas) into their Residential Permit Parking Program.

To encourage the adaptive reuse of underutilized parking infrastructure, as well as adaptive reuse projects more generally, municipalities should also assess their land use permitting process as a whole. Building codes are often managed by several municipal departments, so approval can be time-consuming and expensive, and may result in denial based on a code official’s unwillingness to allow adaptive redevelopment. If municipalities want the social, environmental, and climate benefits of adaptive reuse, they should streamline adaptive reuse projects, like projects that convert parking into housing. For example, Wichita, Kansas converted a 500-car garage into a 44-unit apartment complex, using adaptive reuse to address the issues of excess parking and rising housing costs.

Municipalities can reconfigure their parking infrastructure in a myriad of ways such as using state-delegated land use authority, reducing or removing parking minimums, and encouraging underutilized parking infrastructure reuse. By employing these strategies, municipalities can reduce their waste and resource consumption enabling climate resilient development.

This article is part of a series from the Land Use Law Center that explores how local governments can implement Climate Resilient Development (CRD) as defined in the Sixth Assessment Report of the IPCC. CRD requires innovative reform of land use planning and regulation by local governments. The series presents and analyzes numerous local laws and policies capable of adapting to and mitigating climate change to create equitable and sustainable neighborhoods, achieving “sustainable development for all.” 

Author: Lauren Lynam, 1L Land Use Scholar