Cars to Kids

How to turn an underused parking garage into a high school.

When AC Martin Partners designed a 14-story parking structure for downtown Los Angeles in the late 1980s, the firm’s main concern was making sure the earthquake bracing didn’t overwhelm the architecture. Design principal David Martin suggested bracing every two floors together instead of each one separately. The result was “actually a fairly handsome parking structure,” he says. Ten years later the developer returned to the firm with a bigger problem: the early 1990s recession hadn’t been good to downtown, and parking was not needed. “He would always say, ‘There are floors in that building with no tire tracks,’” Martin recalls. “It was built for a very optimistic vision of downtown.”

Remembering how the structure had been braced, Martin realized they could safely remove every other floor and end up with ten floors of loftlike space, made light and airy by replacing the central ramp with light wells and an atrium. “We knew you could do something with it,” Martin says, “so we studied housing and office space and those IT terminal buildings when that was all the rage. But there’s a tremendous need for inner-city schools in Los Angeles, so when those two ideas came together, we said, ‘My god, could we ever make a school out of this?’”

According to Martin, the Los Angeles Unified School District has the money to build much-needed schools but has run into problems with toxic sites. In the highest-profile case, a 4,000-student high school was almost completed when environmental testing revealed poisons in the soil and construction was halted. Martin’s plan to turn the parking structure into a 1,500-student high school avoids those pitfalls. “Because the foundation and the frame are already built, you could convert it in a very short period of time, and toxicity is not an issue,” he says. Though local students gave the design the thumbs-up—especially the roof-deck cafeteria with views of the ocean—so far the school board has been wary of the potential risks of such an unusual plan. But a school district in crisis needs creative alternatives. Perhaps the board will come to see Martin’s design as both a practical solution and a symbolic gesture—valuing kids over cars. “It’s an extremely powerful idea,” Martin says. “Particularly in Los Angeles.”

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