A Parking Industry Legend Looks Back on Nearly 70 Years
February 8, 2021
Richard C. Rich
Dick Rich is a parking industry legend, and one of the last remaining pioneers from the industry’s early days. He got his start in parking in the early 1950s, and in the decades since he has seen many innovations and advances, and he’s responsible for more than a few of them himself. When Dick joined the parking industry, there were no mega-structures, transit-oriented developments, or multi-use facilities. There certainly weren’t any of the PARCS, parking guidance, pay-on-foot, or other technologies that we take for granted today. It was a simpler time when attendants parked your car for you, and when it was time to leave a cashier took your cash payment and, more often than not, put it directly into a cigar box for safe keeping.
Back in the 60s and early 70s, parking design was often treated as an afterthought.
PT: Parking wasn’t much of an industry when you started out. How did you end up in parking?
I actually first got involved in parking in the late 1940s when I was a student at Marquette University in Milwaukee. I took a job as an attendant at a local parking lot and quickly earned a reputation as the guy who could park the most cars in a day. I actually won an award for it!
I was promoted to night supervisor and put in charge of 11 parking lots and three garages. I guess you could say the rest is history. After I graduated from Marquette University’s School of Engineering, I pursued a career in parking.
In the beginning, Self Parking was a tough sell. At the time, most garages offered attendant parking, which was great for owners because they could fit more cars into their garages. It’s not hard to see why owners wouldn’t want to reduce the number of spaces they offered to accommodate self-parking. Eventually, we were able to convince them that they could make more money with self-parking by increasing turnover and reducing staff and insurance costs.
I also knew that drivers would rather park their own cars because that gave them more control over the process. Of course, today self-parking is the norm, but at the time it was pretty rare.
I worked on some really interesting projects, and I advanced through the company until I was named Chief Designer for National Garages.
PT: In the early 1960s you started your own firm, Rich & Associates, which you still lead.
I had 10 great years with National Garages, but I wanted the creative freedom that comes with having my name on the letterhead. I started Rich & Associates in April of 1963, and we’ve never looked back.
Well, actually, it’s probably the people I got to work with. When I first started Rich & Associates, I had the opportunity to work with some of the best and brightest architects in the world, and that was a great learning experience for me. I worked with Minoru Yamasaki, CF Murphy, and Philip Johnson, just to name a few. These are guys who dominate the textbooks that architecture students use today, and they certainly dominated the scene back then. To be associated with these and other giants of the industry was a real boon to my career and the firm.
My relationships with these architects also gave me a chance to design some of the most notable parking garages of the day. For instance, my design of the O’Hare garage was once listed in the Guinness Book of World Records. I also designed the underground structure at Century City, in LA, which had 6,000 spaces, for Minoru Yamasaki. Today we don’t think twice about a garage that big, but for the time it was enormous, especially for an underground garage. Each floor was 14 acres!
As a side note, I ran into Yama at an airport while traveling on business, shortly after Century City was built. He asked if I remembered the project and he commented that it worked. I told him, what did he expect?
Century City was one of the first to have large flat floors, rather than sloped floors. It was a much safer and more convenient parking experience, and it became a common design approach. When I designed Century City it was the world’s largest underground garage.
I think I was also one of the first designers to give real thought to accessibility and parking. I contracted polio when I was six years old, and that impacted my mobility throughout my life. I think that experience made me more aware of the challenges facing people with disabilities throughout my career, and I tried to accommodate their needs in my designs. Remember, the Americans With Disabilities Act didn’t go into effect until the early 1990s, so these accommodations were a matter of choice, and well before they were required by law.
PT: What are some of your other innovations of which you are most proud?
Well, I was one of the early proponents of multi-use structures. I figured, rather than creating storehouses for cars, why not create parking facilities that serve a particular building or complex? I also think the flat floors were an important innovation because they improved the parking experience so much.
The innovations we worked on really changed the parking landscape. For instance, we introduced the concept of making comprehensive parking planning part of the design process, so we would focus on traffic flow, operational efficiencies, user needs, and other engineering principals. By doing this, we made parking much safer and more convenient.
In the mid 1980s we were working on a large 4,000-space underground garage with large flat floor plates beneath a mixed-use development at Scottsdale Road and Highland Avenue in Scottsdale, Arizona. We tried a number of ramping solutions to accommodate the traffic volumes and circulation, including a spiral ramp approach. However, the spiral ramp was not desirable and expensive. This is when we developed a new ramp approach that we refer to as a straight run semi-express ramp. The solution accommodates the traffic volume needs and creates a simpler circulation pattern on each level. We have since used this ramp system on dozens of garages across North America, including the 9,000-space garage at Lester B. Pearson International Airport in Toronto, which is considered one of the 10 largest garages in the world.
PT: How did your experience overseas impact your designs?
My relationships with the world’s leading designers also gave me a chance to design dozens of parking structures throughout the world. My first foreign garages were for Hudson’s Bay Company in Vancouver, Edmonton, Winnipeg and Calgary, Canada. I went on to design garages in Cali, Colombia, Saudi Arabia with Yamasaki, other parts of the Middle East and Asia, Russia and Israel. It’s gratifying to know that I’ve left my mark on communities throughout the world, from Colombia to Moscow to Tel Aviv to Dubai.
More importantly though, I think my experiences overseas made me a better parking designer, and I put the knowledge I gained overseas to use in here in the United States. Professionals do things differently all over the world, introducing interesting and creative design approaches, code standards, and architectural methods. There’s a lot we can learn from professionals from other parts of the world, and I think these experiences made me a better parking consultant.
PT: And these planning approaches extended outside the parking structure, too, didn’t they?
Sure, the same issue that affected garages affected city streets. Urban planning was already an important part of urban American life, but after World War II, when cars became so dominant, we needed something specifically for parking. We introduced the concept of a parking needs and feasibility study, and we based it on the idea that no two cities or campuses are alike and that demand projects must be based on the unique challenges and opportunities presented by the study area. The approaches we created back then are still used today.
Back in the 60s and early 70s, parking design was often treated as an afterthought. Planners and architects said it was “just a garage” and developments were often built without a parking consultant. The problem was, more often than not, these developments would cause serious traffic problems or had functional designs that just didn’t work. I got a lot of work back then fixing other people’s mistakes.
In the early 1970s, I was one of the first parking consultants to put my money where my mouth was by developing, owning, and managing my own parking structures. Being the owner and operator, I could test new technologies and services that interested me or seemed promising. My garages were some of the first to have neon signage with flashing arrows, LED signs, and security systems with closed circuit TVs and sound monitoring equipment.
Designing, financing, owning, and operating my own structures made us better designers and planners. When you are responsible for everything, you work harder to find ways to make garages safer, more attractive to parkers, and more cost-effective to operate.
Our latest operation began in 1996. The U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs issued an RFP for the private development of a 1,000-space parking facility at the Jesse Brown VAMC in Chicago under a newly adopted Enhanced Use Lease program. One of the conditions of the project was that all VA patients park free. After extensive due diligence, we determined that the project was not economically viable with a projected 800 to 1,000 patients a day parking for free. We presented our analysis in our proposal and submitted alternative financing/lease approaches that no other proposer considered and were ultimately selected over eight competing developers.
Over the next couple of years, we worked closely with the DVA to develop a finance and lease approach that met the various governmental restrictions. During this time the project grew to become a $20 million, 1,600-space parking garage, and a $25 million, 100,000 square foot VARO office building. MEDPark served as development managers over the entire development. Our responsibility included design, construction under a design/build guaranteed maximum price and overall project management. We guaranteed both the construction cost and delivery schedule risking high liquidated damages if we did not perform. We were successful as buildings were completed under budget and on schedule. In fact, the parking garage was completed one month ahead of schedule. Since November 2003, we have been managing both buildings, with separate managers for each building and 11 other employees.
PT: After nearly 70 years in the business, what do you think you’re best known for?
Well, hopefully it’s for my designs and plans. Also, I’m proud that we helped steer the industry towards parking facilities that fit better into their surroundings, rather than just being old-fashioned gray banded boxes.
PT: But there have been some interesting moments, too, haven’t there?
Probably the best-known story happened in Dayton, Ohio back in the 60s. This was a two-module garage with a sloped floor and a parapet wall in between. The city engineers wouldn’t approve the garage to open, maintaining that the parapet wall wasn’t strong enough to withstand the impact of a car going between 12-15 mph and directly hitting it. The city had hired some independent engineers of their own who came up with a formula showing that the wall would break down upon impact.
I went with our engineers to the next meeting to resolve the issue. I had advised the client (owner of the garage) that I wanted to test the wall before the meeting. I told him of my plan to drive a car into the upper-level parapet wall at the 12 to 15 mph speed. So, I rented a car and made sure it was fully insured and finally got up the nerve to drive the car into the wall at the required speed. There wasn’t much of a mark on the wall at all, but there was certainly damage to the front of the car! I left everything as it was at the scene of impact and then went to the meeting with the city.
At the meeting I told them that “I don’t know anything about your formulas, but I tried it out and I’d like you to come over and see what happened.” They all reviewed the site and concluded that their formulas were flawed because they didn’t treat the car as a compressible object. The car absorbed the shock of the impact, resulting in front end damage, but the wall showed little impact. In the end, the wall passed the city’s inspection, and our client was able to open the garage.
PT: So, turning your focus from the past to the future. What do you think the future of parking looks like?
Well, we are already seeing it, but technology will dominate parking for a long time to come. Now, with companies testing self-parking vehicles, and with the introduction of self-driving vehicles not too far down the line, designs will need to accommodate these new realities. You don’t want these new technologies to have a negative impact on operations and driving patterns. You don’t want them to impact traffic on roadways adjacent to the structure either. These issues need to be addressed quickly so we can easily accommodate these new technologies.
I think the pandemic is also going to change the way we look at parking. Parking owners and operators had a huge drop-off in business overnight, and that drop-off has lasted six months with just gradual improvements. Things will be back to normal in a few months, but who’s to say that this won’t happen again? Parking owners and operators need to plan for these sorts of things now, and their parking consultants need to be able to help them in that planning.
PT: Do you have any final thoughts?
I was extremely lucky to enter this industry when I did and to have lasted as long as I have. I’ve seen so many incredible advances that have improved people’s lives and made cities better places to live and work. And I’m extremely proud that my colleagues and I have been responsible for a few of them.
And the important role my associates played in my career can’t be overstated. I’ve been blessed to have worked with some of the parking industry’s most talented designers and planners throughout my career, and many of them have been members of the Rich & Associates family for 30 to 40 years.
The pace of advancement is so quick right now that it reminds me of those early days. There are so many exciting new approaches and technologies being introduced all the time. It’s great time to work in parking.
Kristin Phillips is a business writer specializing in Parking. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.