The Invisible Parking Garage

Draft rendering of planned apartment building at Libbie Mill-Midtown shows how garage rooftop will be used as communal space.
Draft rendering of a planned apartment building at Libbie Mill-Midtown shows how garage rooftop will be used as communal space. Illustration credit: Gumenick Properties.

by James A. Bacon

It is axiomatic among New Urbanists and like-minded brethren in the Smart Growth movement that parking garages create dead space in the urban fabric that discourages walkability and depresses neighboring property values. Some architects try to dress up the structures by giving them facades that imitate the look of regular buildings, draping them with plantings or otherwise making them visually interesting. Another strategy is to hide garages underground or relegate them to the middle of the block.

There is nothing new under the sun, as the old saying goes, so the Gumenick Properties design for a planned apartment building in its Libbie Mill-Midtown project may not be the first of its kind. But I feel safe in saying that it is unique to the Richmond real estate market — and it’s a solution that, economics permitting, should be employed more frequently.

Libbie Mill-Midtown is an 80-acre mixed-use development in Henrico County roughly midway between downtown Richmond and the Innsbrook Corporate Center. The company is billing the $434 million community as “ten minutes from everything.” When complete in ten years or so, depending upon market conditions, the project is expected to have 994 for-sale homes, 1,096 apartments, 160,000 square feet of retail space, a public library and office space. Marketing the project to people who want to rely upon the automobile less, Gumenick is placing tremendous emphasis on walkability.

The development will contain a grid street system and wide sidewalks, and designers are paying close attention to the science of “place making — creating public spaces where people enjoy spending time, as I gathered during an interview last week with  Shane Finnegan, Gumenick’s vice president of construction, and Ed Crews, company spokesman.

This schematic shows the ground-level view of the retail-apartment building planned for Libbie Mill-Midtown.
This schematic shows the ground-level view of the retail-apartment building planned for Libbie Mill-Midtown. (Click for larger image.)

One of the basic rules of place making is to minimize the expanse of parking lots and to hide the parking garages from view. Having erected two retail-office buildings, Gumenick now is designing the first apartment building, which will consist of 40,000 square feet of street-level retail space and 327 apartment units above. In a nod to market reality, the developer acknowledges that most suburban Henrico tenants, while wanting to live in a walkable community, still will own automobiles. Rather than surround the apartments in a sea of asphalt parking, which would diminish the appeal of the streetscape, Gumenick plans to encase the parking garage inside street-facing stores.

Other developers have done the same thing but Gumenick is going one step further. It’s building a pool, terrace and public area on the roof of the parking garage. The parking lot will be totally hidden from view, not just from the street but from the perspective of the tenants living in the apartment building.

Bacon’s bottom line: Gumenick did not divulge financial details of the planned parking structure, but it doesn’t take a construction engineer to figure out that reinforcing a garage so it can support trees, decks and a swimming pool is not an inexpensive proposition. But the invisible parking garage accomplishes two important goals. First, it allows Gumenick to create a shared recreation/courtyard for its tenants. Second, it tucks parking into the middle of the block, preserving pedestrian-enhancing streetscapes. It will be interesting to see how the market responds. Will people pay a premium to live in a walkable community with such amenities? I would. I’m betting others would, too.

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  1. TooManyTaxes Avatar

    An apartment building approved for construction in Tysons has a parking garage in the middle of the structure, wrapped by apartments similar to this one. It keeps the parking invisible from the street, but is much less expensive than underground parking.

  2. larryg Avatar

    how does that type of thing work with fire codes?

    I LIKE the idea of covered parking – it’s much better for runoff both in terms of volume and contaminates…

    what I’ve seen is apartments and condos where the parking spot is extra.

    In places like New York it can cost thousands of dollars more.

    that would seem to be a better supply/demand approach that a one size fits all – everyone pays out the nose approach.

    I still don’t buy the mixed-use concept … it will capture some of the trips but not all and mixed use beyond serving the embedded residential has to be set up to handle external traffic… how does that work?

    most people want to park near the business – they’re not going to want to go to a parking garage then walk back.

    I think we keep trying to go back to settlement pattern types before auto use and auto use has fundamentally changed settlement patterns.

    the reason places like New York “work” is because at street level – you not only can walk or bike but you can catch a vehicle to go somewhere else.

    isolated enclaves of mixed-use don’t really work that way … unless they have robust transit and taxi service (perhaps uber?).

    you just can build stand-alone mixed-use enclaves..they’re different from city spaces.

    1. I agree that isolated enclaves of mixed-use don’t have a major impact on Vehicle Miles Driven. Insofar as residents of Libbie Mill-Midtown frequent local restaurants, visit the local library, use local fitness facilities and partake of the local entertainment programming, they will drive less — but probably not a whole lot less. Still, the project should shave the number of trips on the margin.

      To really make a difference, you need enclaves abutting more enclaves, abutting yet more enclaves until they reach a critical mass that enables people to really change their lifestyles. No one said you could re-work the suburban fabric overnight. You have to start somewhere.

      1. larryg Avatar

        let me ask – we had a recent blog about how a patchwork of conservation land was a bit questionable.

        do you think building stand-alone mixed use without regard to where other such development is – and what is in between it ( i.e. is it an island forever) –
        contributes to that longer goal?

        should govt incentivize land closer to existing over distant enclaves?

        we have up here something called neighborhood commercial – strips in front of subdivisions with grocery, drug, pizza, cleaners, etc.. and it captures a certain number of trips but not all.

        do you think mixed-use compares somewhat equivalent to trip generation to auto-centric subdivisions with neighborhood commercial strips?

        1. Depends. Do many people walk to the neighborhood commercial strips, or do they end up taking their cars anyway?

          Neighborhood commercial strips are better than nothing. Even if people take their cars, at least they’re taking *short* trips. I would argue that mixed-use is better, if done right. Walking short distances is better than driving cars short distances. Plus, there are other angles to consider. Structured parking yields more tax revenue per acre than surface parking lots. Finally, I would argue that more compact, higher-density, mixed-use communities generate higher property values per acre overall, not just for the acreage dedicated to parking.

        2. TooManyTaxes Avatar

          Most developers do a reasonably good job of constructing marketable buildings. But they follow trends more closely than middle school students. Mixed use buildings and neighborhoods make sense in places like Tysons, Merrifield and Reston. And its not irrational to include a coffee shop or drycleaner on the ground floor of a mid- to high-rise apartment building. But the market for these buildings is limited.

          Fairfax County is more than 50 SFHs in relatively quiet suburban neighborhoods. And while some want to or have to move to apartments or condos, there remains strong demand for SFH.

          While I don’t understand the economics, I think part of the movement by developers is their realization Fairfax County and other areas are largely built out. There is a market for teardowns, but most of the subdivisions have been built. So they talk elected officials into believing everyone wants to live in a city. If this effort results in just rezoning, the developer gets flexibility, but is not locked in. For example, CityLine has proposed rezoning a large parking lot to accommodate five buildings near the McLean rail station. But it didn’t propose a single FDP – everything was just a conceptual development plan.

          Urban living presents a choice that some people like. That’s great But beyond that, it’s just a fad or attempt by control freaks to remake the world as they want it.

          1. larryg Avatar

            I’m dubious about the idea that mixed-use functions the same no matter other factors.

            stand-alone mixed use – is usually not diverse in term of demographics and income.

            the broader trend seems to be that higher income birds of a feather want their “own” mixed use and especially don’t want lower-income units in their mixed use.

            To a certain extent that’s why we have different mixed-use flavors in cities with some of the mixed-use being low income – meets all the benchmarks for density, compactness, but services are sparse and limited.

            we’re starting to see in our area – multi-pod mixed use development where one pod is up scale but stand alone and other pods are also standalone but at different income levels – all connected by streets and sidewalks to neighborhood commercial strip at the entrance. the units vary for under 100K to more than 500K.. some are “patio” homes and townhouses and others are large footprint single family detached..

  3. larryg Avatar

    out in exurban-land – mixed use is a highly touted land use by hopeful developers – but it’s basically rote – the proponents keep saying – live, work, play and shop like it’s a kind of rosary prayer.

    nevermind that the workers in the shops cannot afford to live in the mixed-use development and commute there by car everyday. there is no affordable units in the mixed-use for the workers in mixed-use.

    modern life just does not work like life in the 19th century did.

    people do not go to the nearest whatever because they are limited in their mobility – instead today – mobility trumps settlement patterns

    I had speculated on the functionality of “enclaves” of mixed-use vs a more monolithic scale.

    so I wonder if what the developers are after is really a large enough scale to be truly mixed-use – the adjective not the noun.

    and mixed use that does not offer a range of priced units- to include low-income is – once again – not what the settlement patterns of old were.

    they are sort of synthetic..hybrids – replicas of old..

    they have the physical look , shape , etc. but they’re not the same functionally.

  4. Darrell Avatar

    They have something like this in Cebu, Philippines. Retail, hotel, condos, apartments. And a parking garage for everything, under a bar, meeting room, and shared swimming pool that’s on the 7th floor. I was talking to someone who owns a condo there.

    Remember the big 2013 earthquake and Super Typhoon they had in the Philippines? This building complex made out OK. The only damage was a small crack in the swimming pool. A small crack that was pouring 50 to 100 gallons a day over the condo owners cars and bought and paid for parking spots.

    The pool was still in operation because a hotel without a pool is bad for business. Then the businesses wanted the condos to pay for the replacement of the pool because their parking spots were on the next floor down and directly affected. So what started out to be a “Smart” idea, turned into a full out legal war between businesses and the condo owners.

    The apartment dwellers are the rent paying refugees stuck in the cross fire. Their only recourse is to move someplace else in a hurry.

    1. Gumenick Properties better hope that Richmond doesn’t have any earthquakes!

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