Building a better parking space

Local parking guru Joe Farrell

Photo: Courtesy Joe Farrell

Architect Joe Farrell knows parking. He’s been designing parking structures with Architects Hawaii since 1970, starting with the Bishop Square garage—the first double-helix parking structure in the state—and then on to buildings ranging from the Marco Polo apartments to the Downtown Macy’s to the Pacific Guardian Tower. This month, the Farrell-designed Kapiolani Medical Center parking structure opens; at 17 stories, it’s the tallest garage in the state.

We sat down with him to find out more about the do’s and don’ts of parking.

Q: When you’re laying out a new structure, what design problems do you need to solve?

A: One big issue is the width of the stalls. Nine feet is ideal for retail. You don’t see that much, though. The building code for standard cars allows stalls to be eight feet three inches wide. It used to be eight feet six inches, but there were pressures on the government, I guess. The big problem is what are called compact stalls. They’re allowed to be seven foot six inches wide. There ought to be a law against that. People are just going to park a big vehicle in there anyway, so why cause that frustration? Have you ever parked in the lot right next to Neiman Marcus? Those are tiny stalls and, boy, do they get curses! People bang each other; it’s just terrible. Eight foot six inches is really a minimum.

Q: Why not just have roomy stalls?

A: There is pressure from developers who want to pack in as many stalls as possible. Everyone’s trying to maximize the return on that footprint. Bishop Square started off with bigger stalls, and now they’re eight foot six. Interestingly, downtown parking managers have discovered that they can get additional income renting 125 percent of the stalls every month. People go out of town, or aren’t parked after office hours.

Q: Do you keep an eye out for good and bad parking lots? What stands out to you?

A: I always notice any structure where the traffic backs up. Take (the original garage at) Ward Center, for instance. Big problem there. They’ve got two-way traffic, and flat slabs. You go around and around and wait and wait. If they had a double-helix configuration, they wouldn’t have that problem. And the width of the stalls is probably eight foot three inches, I would guess. Costco, in Iwilei, on the other hand, has really wide drive aisles. Typically everyone uses a width of 22 feet for a two-way drive aisle. I think Costco’s are more like 25 feet. They’re thinking of their customers, and those big shopping carts that need extra room.

Parking at the top of the new Kapiolani medical center garage would add about a mile to your commute:
1/2 a mile up, and another half going down.

Photo: Rae Huo

Q: Are there new advances in the world of parking design?

A: One thing we do these days that we didn’t used to think about is to make the parking structure safer, especially for women. There needs to be enough lighting, and we try to get structures painted white on the inside. We keep obstructions to a minimum, so you can view across the parking structure. Take the stairs and the elevator, for instance; instead of putting them in the center, we put them on the outside. We’re also trying to help people navigate parking structures and not get lost. One thing we’re trying now is to brand each floor with a different animal. A lion, or a dog or something, big and super graphic. You instantly realize that you’re on the turtle floor. We’ve tried color coding, but it doesn’t really work. There are too many floors and not enough colors. People can remember the basic primary colors, but they’re not going to keep track of these in-between shades. But a six-foot-tall lion’s face, that’ll stick in your head.

Q: The new Kapiolani Medical Center parking garage is 17 stories. Is there an upper limit to how tall you can make one of these things?

A: The limit? When you throw up. (laughs) When you’re driving up into a garage, the little things inside your ears start telling you you’re turning, and if you keep going in a circle, you start to get a little nauseated. I don’t think that’ll happen here (with the Kapiolani structure). But that is a risk. We could go higher if we switched to robotic parking.

Q: Parking sometimes gets taken for granted. What keeps you interested in designing parking garages?

A: Parking is important. People who have a bad parking structure grumble a great deal. People with good parking don’t say anything. When I was in architectural school, one definition of good architecture was that, if you designed a building that nobody noticed and nobody commented on, it was highly successful. That’s what a good parking structure is all about. You have something else on your mind when you’re parking your car, and you don’t need to be distracted by bad design.