SQUEEZE PLAY : Architects, Developers and Tenants Play the Politics of Parking in the Struggle to Pack More Cars Into Less Space

Robert Ostmann Jr. is a free-lance writer.

Steve Camp has found a flaw in this gem of a parking lot.

For the past half-hour, the Laguna Hills architect and parking lot expert has been cruising the concrete surrounding the MainPlace/Santa Ana mall, extolling the virtues of smooth traffic flow, efficient arrangement of its 5,510 spaces, easy access to stores, legible signs.

But now, ready to head back to his office, he's driving in circles: He can't find his way out of the parking structure.

"Exit sign is a little small," Camp mutters as he finally spies the very tastefully lettered directive--a mere two feet high.

Camp has just had a taste of what is probably a universal Orange County experience: parking hassle.

Who hasn't been stuck in a holding pattern waiting for a space to open up? Or emerged from the store to find a fresh dent in the car door? Or had to make a trek in from the Outer Mongolian fringes of some mall's sprawling parking lot?

Camp, director of the Orange County office of Barasch Architects & Associates, is in the business of designing minimum-hassle parking lots for offices, restaurants and stores. But he says parking lots that work great on paper can succumb to the reality of compromise.

Everyone involved in creating a parking lot--architects, developers, government officials--has a different opinion about how big it should be, how much should be spent on it, how the cars should be packed into it, how it should be made secure, and how pretty it should be.

Designing a parking lot, Camp (who has designed 40 of them in the past five years) says, becomes a "juggling act where you try to max out parking and still satisfy all these other needs."

Depending on the outcome of this struggle, a parking lot can be a dream with enough spaces, easy access and good security or a nightmare of clogged lanes, bruised fenders and burgled stereos.

It's money that counts most in parking lot matters.

Land has become so expensive in Orange County that developers can't afford to devote a square inch more to parking than is absolutely necessary.

Only a few years ago, building design was an architect's first consideration. These days, Camp says, "parking drives development. The first thing you do is figure out how to fit the needed parking spaces so you can get as much leasable building as possible on the site."

Camp says the fate of a project can hinge on whether the architect can squeeze in a few more parking spaces by having cars overhang a curb by two feet.

Fierce development competition combined with high land prices make it tempting for builders to skimp on parking space or cram too many spaces in too small an area in order to save money, Camp says, and some do.

But their offices or shopping centers acquire reputations for parking hassles, and prospective tenants, concerned for employees and customer convenience, won't rent from them, Camp says.

Camp says Anaheim Stadium is a good example of adequate parking arranged thoughtfully. Designers left enough space for people to maneuver their cars and provided enough escape routes and direction signs so that even the crowd from a sold-out Rams game can clear the lot fairly smoothly.

Disneyland parking also works well, Camp says, because of easy access and a very efficient tram system for getting people from their cars to the park.

Knott's Berry Farm, on the other hand, has relatively poor parking. It was not designed from the beginning as an amusement park, as was Disneyland, so now it is saddled with a patchwork of scattered lots, the largest of which is a long walk from the park and until recently was not paved.

"If we were starting over, there's no doubt we'd design our parking differently," says Stuart Zanville, Knott's director of public relations.

"So we've been forced to be creative."

For example, he said, park employees are stationed at key locations on nearby streets to intercept visitors and direct them to the most convenient parking.

One of the places given a "deficient" rating by Camp's firm was the South Coast Westin Hotel (see accompanying chart on various sites in the county, none of which were designed by Camp's firm) . Michael Deighton, the hotel's general manager, disagreed with the assessment. "From a safety and security standpoint, it (parking) has always been a positive seller for this hotel," he said. "For us, it (the rating) is a surprise because it's always been such a positive factor. We've never had a problem." Deighton said the parking area is "extremely well-lit, it's gated" and is "very secure."

Even well-planned, well-designed lots can be overwhelmed by the vagaries of seasons, shifts in car sizes and population growth.

Perfectly adequate lots in Newport Beach in the winter become box-canyon traps in the summer, Camp says. Designers and developers can't economically deal with that kind of fluctuation in demand. "You can't afford to have a lot sitting half empty half the year," Camp says.

Other lots fall victim to social trends.

"Two or three years ago, the city of Irvine was allowing lots to be built with 50% compact-car spaces (one-fourth smaller than a standard 9-by-19-foot space)," Camp says.

"Now car sizes have increased, and you have cars sticking out in the aisles and crammed too tightly together."

Still other lots were fine in another era but have been swamped by the growth of the past decade.

Saddleback Plaza, a shopping complex east of Interstate 5 on El Toro Road, appears at first glance to have ideal parking. Stores are scattered in the midst of the parking so that no one would seem to have to walk too far to a destination. Landscaping creates a pleasant, shaded environment.

But in the past few years, the El Toro Road corridor has become a conduit to the expanding housing developments in the south county foothills. Saddleback Plaza's parking now is grossly inadequate, Camp says.

For many drivers, the inevitable result of parking lots that don't work is car damage.

"Fifteen percent of our business is damage done in parking lots," says Andrew Felix, co-owner of Freeway Auto Restoration in San Clemente.

"And we're not talking door dings. People have learned to live with those. I mean $400 stuff. Somebody backs into your door getting out of a space or doesn't quite make a tight turn and clips your bumper."

In designing parking lots that work, however, architects are concerned with more than keeping cars from banging into each other. They want it to look good, too.

Some city governments are sticklers for landscaping and other aesthetic amenities, but good-looking parking lots can mean good business for the buildings they serve.

"We have two concerns about parking," says Rick Lutsky, vice president of Birtcher, an Orange County development firm. "Is there enough of it and is it aesthetically pleasing? Tenants don't want to look out on a sea of asphalt, so we break it up with landscaping so you can never see all of the parking at once.

"The curb appeal of the parking is an important first impression" of people coming to an office or shopping center, Lutsky says. If the parking is an eyesore, that can create a negative impression that could affect whether someone leases the building or shops in stores.

Camp says the MainPlace mall is a good example of how the parking areas were designed to create a positive psychological impression in shoppers' minds.

First, the parking is generally close to the mall entrances. Architectural details--colors and shapes--in the mall design are picked up in the parking areas, Camp says, so that as soon as people get out of their cars, they are led visually into the mall. The effect is heightened by attractive bridges connecting the parking structures to the mall.

If people have a positive parking experience at a mall, Camp says, they may be more likely to choose it over one where they have none. In the intensely competitive retail world of Orange County, any edge helps, he says.

The look of a parking lot or structure also is very important to crime-prevention specialist Mike McCoy, but aesthetics is the last thing on his mind.

McCoy sees parking areas as potential war zones of crime, and he talks about them in military terms. His job with the Santa Ana Police Department is to make sure that parking, especially structures, has such things as adequate "natural surveillance" and "target hardening."

"We've seen a big increase in the last two or three years in construction of parking structures, and we want them to be secure," says McCoy, who works with the city's crime-prevention unit.

He reviews plans for parking facilities and inspects existing ones to make sure they conform to the city's building-security ordinance. (All parking design regulations are under jurisdiction of cities or counties in unincorporated areas; there is no state code governing them.)

Above all, McCoy says, good parking lots and structures should be designed for high visibility into and across the facility. No one should ever have to walk out of sight of well traveled areas to get to or from a car.

Ramps should be placed at the sides of a structure, not in the middle where they can shield assailants from view.

Outside walls should be built with large openings so people can see easily into the structure.

Closed-in stairwells and elevators can become "no man's lands," McCoy says. To cut down on the chance for robbery or assault, stairwells should be open and elevators should be glass-backed, with the glass side visible from a high-traffic area.

Thorny landscape shrubs should be planted in and around parking areas to discourage anyone from lurking.

McCoy says he is most opposed to underground parking. "Once you do down there, nobody knows what's going on."

McCoy says that when he confronts developers with concerns about security in proposed parking facilities, "they're usually not too happy. Most often there is a conflict between security and aesthetics. Stairwells are ugly, for instance, so they want to wall them off. But we normally get what we want."

The trend toward more parking structures in Orange County will continue as land values rise in Orange County, says developer Lutsky.

More grocery stores like the Alpha Beta on Coast Highway in Laguna Beach will be built on top of a parking garage to get the most parking on a small parcel of land.

More shopping centers will be built like the one now under construction in Dana Point that features parking in front of, on top of, and beneath the stores. Architect Camp, who designed the project, says land is so expensive along the coast that without the innovative parking solution, the project would not have been feasible.

Lutsky says that as people use structures, they grow to prefer them, and builders will see that as an advantage.

"People prefer shelter; they like the feeling of being protected."

Lutsky said people can view covered parking as a perk. "In one project we're doing now, we're including some covered parking so that it can be labeled 'executive parking,' " Lutsky says.

Even obsolete "sea of parking" lots, such as the vast reaches of asphalt at South Coast Plaza, likely will change as they compete with newer, more parking-friendly malls.

"Dealing with parking here is an evolutionary process," says Maura Eggan, director of marketing for South Coast Plaza.

To the original sprawling lots, Eggan says, the mall has added a popular parking structure and valet parking service.

"We are continually trying to make people aware of alternative ways in and out. But people have parking habits they are reluctant to change. We're like little rodents, always trying to park in front of Saks or wherever we always have.

"Maybe we should just try to convince people of the health advantages of parking-lot walking as exercise."

PARKING LOT RATINGS

Here's how parking design experts at Barasch Architects/Laguna Hills rated a selection of well-known Orange County parking facilities.

Facility Safety Circulation Efficiency Appearance SOME OF THE BEST OC Performing Arts Center 4 5 5 5 (Costa Mesa) Irvine Spectrum 4 5 5 5 Crystal Court (Costa Mesa) 5 4 5 5 Disneyland (Anaheim) 4 5 4 5 Anaheim Stadium 4 4 4 4 MainPlace/Santa Ana 3 4 4 5 SOME OF THE DEFICIENCIES Pacific Amphitheatre 4 3 3 2 (Costa Mesa) Saddleback Plaza (El Toro) 2 3 2 4 South Coast Westin Hotel 2 2 3 2 (Costa Mesa) Airport Industrial Park (Irvine) 2 2 2 3 South Coast Plaza 2 2 2 1 (Costa Mesa, original lot) Irvine Meadows 1 1 3 1

Facility Total SOME OF THE BEST OC Performing Arts Center 19 (Costa Mesa) Irvine Spectrum 19 Crystal Court (Costa Mesa) 19 Disneyland (Anaheim) 18 Anaheim Stadium 16 MainPlace/Santa Ana 16 SOME OF THE DEFICIENCIES Pacific Amphitheatre 12 (Costa Mesa) Saddleback Plaza (El Toro) 11 South Coast Westin Hotel 9 (Costa Mesa) Airport Industrial Park (Irvine) 9 South Coast Plaza 7 (Costa Mesa, original lot) Irvine Meadows 6

5-Excellent 4-Good 3-Average 2-Below average 1-Poor Criteria

Safety

Is it well lit and designed to discourage prowlers and criminals?

Can cars turn safely and avoid each other?

Can people walk safely, away from car lanes?

Circulation

Are there enough ways in and out?

Can people get to their destinations without long walks?

Efficiency

Are there enough parking spaces?

Are the spaces arranged to get as many cars parked without cramming them together?

Appearance

Does the parking blend in with or complement the surroundings it serves?

Is there enough landscaping to "soften" the view of the lot?

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