When meeting with new clients, we are often asked what the first step is in our design process. We are typically called on to investigate repurposing old buildings in urban environments. For the vast majority of these projects, our initial task is a baseline site study. This study is an examination of a site to determine several key items: how much space is required for streetscape (sidewalks, street trees, street furniture), how much parking can fit, and how the building engages the site and street.
The next step is to determine how much building and which uses are possible based upon this available parking. The goal is to bring the site into equilibrium, with as much building as possible and as little parking as required. We have pointed out in previous posts that when we are just looking at office use, there will generally be an equal amount of site required for parking as building footprint. Even more parking is required for more active uses such as restaurant or retail. This doesn’t generally make for a dense, walkable environment.
Now is the time to get creative—it is time to have a hard talk with the client to determine what they perceive to be the actual market (and/or lender) need for parking. We start to discuss potential for mixed use and time of day sharing—allowed in several areas in Atlanta, pending administrative approval—and for offsite sharing possibilities. Once you begin to build a critical mass of projects, this sharing can often be sourced by other clients of ours at nearby properties.
Sites located near bike trails and transit stops offer opportunities for reduced parking, which often means going through a community engagement process for zoning approvals. This usually involves a very delicate balance of demonstrating potential benefits to the community while trying to get people on board with having fewer parking spaces. We often pull rabbits out of hats, but sometimes the crowd throws rotten tomatoes. Despite this opposition, the increasing desire for walkability is really on our side in these community meetings: study after study has shown how people strongly prefer to live in walkable places. The key is how our project, with its reduced parking, helps get a neighborhood closer to that ideal state.
The goal of this initial process is simple: show how we can create the most value out of a site with a viable project. This project must be achievable for our client—it must have uses that conform to market demand at rates the market will bare. Usually there must also be a relatable benefit for the community convincing enough to win their support for modifications of the initial zoning rules, or we must pull that rabbit out of the hat to show how we can achieve this viability with an as-of-right approach. Urban redevelopment often involves a number of headaches to get to the finish line. Having a solid baseline site study in hand is the best way to chart your course through the upcoming wilderness.