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Parking lots rarely attract media attention, but to developers, architects, engineers and property owners they are the linchpin of a fully functioning city.

According to data from the Parking Network, the world’s largest information source on parking, urban motorists spend about 20 minutes on the road looking for a parking spot. This is not just a waste of commuters’ time, but also a loss of productivity and economic opportunity – and it’s only going to get worse. It’s integral that city planners address the issue of parking in their city given that the global population is predicted to surpass eight billion, up from the current 7.5 billion, by the year 2030.

As a result, just about anyone involved with urban development is seriously contemplating the future of parking. But the question of where to park, and what kinds of facilities should serve the private automobile, is complicated in a world where ride-sharing and driverless cars are poised to become far more common modes of transportation.

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As a result of changes to come, Calgary planners decided to build a 250,000-square-foot parking garage – an area about the size of four football fields. This new multilevel parking facility will offer 510 spots for parking and will cost $80-million to build. But this particular parking lot is going to be different. When completed in 2020, the structure will offer motorists conventional parking spots. Over time, however, the structure can slowly change to accommodate different uses. The transition is being built into the initial design.

Rendering of Calgary parking facility that will currently provide more than 500 parking spaces but, in the future, can be easily adapted to create residential units and community space.

Kasian Architecture and 5468796 Architecture/ Handout

Despite this forward approach to design and development, the structure will still look like a parking garage, says Kate Thompson, vice-president of development at the Calgary Municipal Land Corp.

“You just can’t hide 510 cars,” Ms. Thompson says.

“We wanted to build something … a bit different,” says Glen Furtado, general manager of the Calgary Parking Authority.

The 250,000-square-foot development will also include 55,000 square feet for an innovation centre – a place where innovators and entrepreneurs can meet with mentors and potential investors to help turn leading-edge ideas into startup companies, Ms. Thompson says.

The space has already been leased to an organization called Platform Calgary, which works with startups. “We’re pleased that it’s going to have a business running in it as soon as it opens,” Mr. Furtado says.

Building a mixed-use facility is smart, but building a structure with multiple uses now that can evolve and change over time is strategically innovative, Mr. Furtado says.

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Even before a shovel hits the dirt, designers thought ahead to future alterations and use of this space, while also meeting the city’s current needs. The ceilings, for example, are four metres high. Not only is this convenient for drivers who have high trucks or ski racks, but it also makes it easy to add ductwork and wiring into the building if and when it does get converted for residential use. In this way, the entire structure is being built so that the parking area can, at some point, be converted into multifamily housing later on, with minimal structural alteration.

Rendering of the new Calgary parking facility that will currently provide more than 500 parking spaces but, in the future, can be easily adapted to create residential units and community space.

Kasian Architecture and 5468796 Architecture/ Handout

This has the potential to address two issues that are faced by growing cities – it can provide affordable housing and, with the innovation centre attached, it can provide homes close to where people work.

This idea of building parking facilities that can be converted to other uses isn’t restricted to Alberta. In Detroit, Ford Motor Co. is spending US$350-million to restore a long-abandoned train terminal and convert it into a self-driving car research centre. Housed in the former Michigan Central Station, this massive new facility slated to open in 2022 is part of a big push by North American automakers to keep pace with research and development in China, where there is also a major effort under way to dominate the market for electric and autonomous vehicles.

The big question on everyone’s mind is how quickly Calgary’s new parking facility will adapt to accommodate the needs of the community.

The Canadian Parking Association examined the continuing changes in the need for parking. In a report released last year, the organization analyzed trends that will affect parking lots and noted that with car ownership declining and ride-sharing increasing, there may not be a need to create and keep parking garages or lots.

“The automaker may not sell as many vehicles to the private driver, but it will sell cars to ride-sharing companies, and research indicates that miles driven will increase dramatically as fewer vehicles drive further distances,” says Chris Hylton, who analyzed the data for the association.

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Detroit’s Michigan Central Station, where auto-manufacturing company Ford is spending US$350-million to turn the facility into a research centre focused on autonomous vehicles.

David Israelson/Handout

“For the parking operator, additional stalls for short-term parking, for drop-off parking [and] for shared-vehicle parking will increase,” Mr. Hylton says.

The economics of parking is changing, too, says James McKellar, director of real estate and infrastructure at York University Schulich School of Business.

“Even if cars are driverless, they’re still cars and will need a place to park. But as more people move downtown and decide they don’t need their own cars, developers are finding it’s a big gamble to build more parking,” Mr. McKellar says.

“A parking stall in Toronto probably costs about $85,000 to set up. So, developers are shying away from providing lots of parking.”

Still, the car isn’t disappearing entirely and the need for parking in urban settings will remain a concern. Given this changing landscape, more innovative design builds are expected across North America.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly credited the photo renderings for the Calgary parking facility. They were produced by Kasian Architecture and 5468796 Architecture. This version has been corrected.

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