With Fewer Cars and Drivers, What To Do With Empty Garages?

We’ve all seen one of these “leg parties” from the street

First I came for your kitchen, now I’m coming for your garage.

I’ve noticed a trend over the past year at the Oak Lawn Committee – applicants seeking less parking than is required by the PD-193 ordinance. A hotel will be seeking half of the parking required, and an office building cutting a third. Each one makes the case that less car use equates to less garage space needed. Even outside the city core, the Preston Road and Northwest Highway task force meetings were presented with multiple traffic studies which showed that intersection’s traffic had been decreasing for nearly 20 years.

Outside Dallas, I’ve also read this past week of projects in urban Chicago where heart-stoppingly few parking spaces are being proposed in new residential projects. A mixed hotel-condo project with 280 hotel rooms and 290 condos would offer just 26 parking spaces. Another 39-story, 368-unit residential tower proposed 158 parking spaces while an 11-story, 102-unit building would have just 31 spaces – each a far cry from the expected two spaces per unit minimum. For Dallasites, these projects are heart-stopping because unlike Dallas, Chicago has a robust public transportation system in addition to ride-sharing services. Many municipalities are taking notice and updating parking minimums.

In addition to shifts in transportation use, remote work continues to gain steam. Nationally, in November 2018, job search site indeed.com posted the results of a survey on remote working. They found that 37 percent of respondents worked for companies with a remote work policy while 52 percent wished they did and 14 percent were seeking a job that did (40 percent would take a pay cut to get it). In 2017, Gallup reported that between 2012 and 2016, remote working increased from 39 to 43 percent.

Globally, in May 2018, Swiss-based IWG reported the results of a survey of 18,000 globally based office workers. They found 70 percent of salaried office workers worked remotely at least one day per week and 53 percent spent at least half the week remote. Personally, I’ve been working from home for over 10 years and my driving plummeted from ~14,000 miles a year to ~3,500 – my 2014 car has less than 13,000 miles on it.

The only “car” this kid may own.

And again, last week the New York Times’ opinion pages featured, “Owning a Car Will Soon Be as Quaint as Owning a Horse.” Author Kara Swisher opines on the future of driverless cars (perhaps decades away) while she feels there’s enough public transportation and ride-sharing to ditch her car today. She points to the speed at which other behavioral changes, driven by technology, were adopted much quicker than most would have guessed – mail to email, paper maps to GPS, etc.

I won’t insult you by querying “what’s it all mean” because it’s obvious.  We’re experiencing a behavior-altering intersection of robust ride-sharing services, improving public transportation and ever-increasing remote work options all layered on an ever-urbanizing world.

It all equates to less need for a car and its residential garage. Garages were devised for the same reason stables were – neither one delivered their best performance when left in the rain. Over time, cars became waterproof and yet the garage remained.

Suburban garage converted to light-filled living area

However, now that car use is declining in urbanized areas and urban areas continue to expand, what should homeowners do with them? How should today’s home builders account for their eventual repurpose? Are today’s home garages similar to camera film on the eve of digital photography? And what about multi-story parking garages perhaps destined for floor-after-floor of emptiness?

I foresee a time when the lowly starter home becomes a “forever” home as a 400-square-foot attached two-car garage becomes a new master suite or additional bedroom space. That said, U.S. birthrates have dropped from 1.67 per person in 1990 to 1.18 in 2017. In the end, smaller families and remote working may see homes shrink and reformulate into fewer bedrooms and garages but more home office space.

Back in 2015, Harlan Crow spent $5.1 million to add a 77-car underground parking garage to his 8-acre Highland Park estate. At the time he reportedly said it would give his kids somewhere to play when it rained. He may be right.


Remember:  High-rises, HOAs and renovation are my beat. But I also appreciate modern and historical architecture balanced against the YIMBY movement. In 2016, 2017 and 2018, the National Association of Real Estate Editors recognized my writing with three Bronze (2016, 2017, 2018) and two Silver (2016, 2017) awards.  Have a story to tell or a marriage proposal to make?  Shoot me an email sharewithjon@candysdirt.com. Be sure to look for me on Facebook and Twitter. You won’t find me, but you’re welcome to look.