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

July 01, 1989|ROBERT OSTMANN JR. | 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.

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