For Southern California drivers, finding a space in a parking structure is a dreaded but often unavoidable exercise in frustration. The endless circling. Stalking shoppers down the aisles. Scanning for the glow of red and white lights signaling that a car is backing out.
But that's beginning to change, thanks to the efforts of a small but growing contingent of designers working to take the pain out of parking.
Garage design has evolved from its earliest days, when parking structures were all pretty much alike: concrete slabs stacked atop one another.
Over the last 20 years, planners have recognized that a parking structure for a cinema multiplex -- with its generally young audience rushing to catch movies -- may not be the best design for, say, a hospital.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday May 28, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 32 words Type of Material: Correction
Mall location -- A Behind the Wheel column in the April 22 California section incorrectly stated that The Grove shopping center is in West Los Angeles. It is in the Fairfax district.
Today, good parking structures are built to be easier on users, make the most efficient use of space and get cars in and out as smoothly as possible. The most sophisticated garages can lead drivers directly to empty parking spots.
"I never knew so much went into it," said Daniel J. Burgner, senior vice president of operations at Caruso Affiliated Holdings, a Santa Monica developer and property manager.
Burgner remembered the day his boss, Rick Caruso, walked into his office. "He said, 'Find the best parking structure to fit my vision,' " Burgner recalled.
Caruso's vision was the Grove -- the now-1-year-old outdoor shopping mall in West Los Angeles filled with high-end stores, restaurants and a 14-screen movie theater in a quaint city-like setting.
"We were creating a five-star resort shopping mall," Burgner said. "The parking had to be special."
For the next year and a half, Burgner scoured the world from his office for the latest in parking designs. He learned that there's more to parking than most people think. There is a method to the mundane.
"I was in search of components that made up the perfect garage," he said.
The results? Electronic display boards at the garage's entrance and on each level tell motorists how many spaces are available on each floor. Sensors on the ramps count cars as they come and go, updating the displays regularly.
Access ramps were designed to be roomy enough to accommodate two SUVs side-by-side, with separate lanes for quick ascent or descent through the structure and for merging to or from a floor of parking spaces. The spaces -- six to eight inches wider than the average stall -- were generously sized and angled to facilitate easy parking.
To create a "light and airy" feeling on each floor, there are no walls, only columns, to allow for natural light. Ceilings are high and painted white.
Burgner said he wanted the garage to have "the feel of a hotel as soon as you get out of the car."
To accomplish that, the company spent an additional $2 million to add balconies near the elevator bays and a crystal chandelier hanging from the third level to the mall's main entrance.
"It's our customers' first and last impression," Burgner said.
Across the country, at Baltimore-Washington International Airport, a new structure dubbed the Smart Park garage takes the Grove's attention to parking design one step further: The system leads drivers directly to an empty space.
"There's certainly enough stress in air travel," said Bill Lins, who oversees Smart Park for the airport. "People are rushed. They're late, there's long lines. Add to that equation, in our case, 5,600 spaces," only a scattered 100 of them open. "You drive around and around."
As at the Grove, motorists entering the Baltimore Smart Park garage see a large sign displaying the number of spaces available on each level. But at Smart Park, the signs offer an extra level of assistance: Drivers who follow the arrows will be taken directly to empty spaces.
Every three seconds, sensors in each stall report its availability to a main computer, which then calculates the tally for every floor in the garage. Lights that can be seen from 100 yards away are strung above each stall. Occupied spaces are red. Empty stalls are green.
Baltimore-Washington International's is the first garage in the country to use such a system, said Jerry E. Fondaw of Signal-Park USA, the system's distributor.
After a year-long trial period on one parking level, Baltimore-Washington International is expanding the system throughout the airport.
Fondaw said motorists at the airport can find a space within one minute. Without the system, he said, the average search would take five minutes.
Lins said Smart Park has been a tremendous success. The airport has received many compliments in the form of e-mails, letters and even visits from people interested in using it in their garages.
Mary Smith, director of parking consulting at Walker Consulting in Indianapolis, said Baltimore-Washington International's and the Grove's extreme attention to detail and focus on the customer is "the wave of the future" for parking garages.