© RossDrulisCusenbery Architecture Inc

RossDrulisCusenbery Architecture Inc Enhances Pedestrian and Parking Experience at California Ave Parking Garage

Palo Alto, CA, United States

Architizer Editors Architizer Editors
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California Avenue Parking Garage – Dynamic manipulation of light, texture and movement animate this 640-car parking structure. RossDrulisCusenbery Architecture, Inc. worked closely with the city of Palo Alto to program, plan, locate and design the new 49,000 SF City of Palo Alto Public Safety Building and 640 space Avenue Parking Garage. The new parking structure was designed to enhance the pedestrian experience as well as park cars.

Architizer chatted with Mallory Scott Cusenbery, AIA at RossDrulisCusenbery Architecture Inc to learn more about this project. 

Architizer: Please summarize the project brief and creative vision behind your project.

Mallory Scott Cusenbery: The purpose of this project is to take a hyper-functional activity—parking your car in a garage—and finding ways to make those moments exceptional. We’ve nicknamed the project “the moment between upholstery and pavement.” This is our way of featuring a prosaic activity that usually gets ignored, and turning it into a micro-experience worth remembering. The design for this parking structure is not about the form of the structure, or the building as object, but instead, is about the sensory and perceptual experience of a moment of transition.

© RossDrulisCusenbery Architecture Inc

© RossDrulisCusenbery Architecture Inc

What inspired the initial concept for your design?

We feel that even the most prosaic day-to-day experiences can be inspiration for interesting architecture. We quickly became intrigued by the idea of a parking garage as so much more than a place to dock your car. You are on your way to a destination, your travel has ended, as you transition from one mode to another, how can architecture help? Our focus on the sensory and transient qualities unique to this modal transition—from car to foot and back again—inspired us to focus on leveraging those fleeting moments through built form.

© RossDrulisCusenbery Architecture Inc

© RossDrulisCusenbery Architecture Inc

What do you believe is the most unique or ‘standout’ component of the project?

The part of the project that will likely stand out the most in people’s experience of this project is the 4-story cascading exterior staircase that descends through an urban-sensory terrain. As you leave the floor you’ve parked on, you emerge to a staircase cantilevered outside the envelope of the building, then you descend on a terraced walkway surrounded by a filigree of terracotta fins on your right and a pixilation of specular-reflective porcelain tiles on your left. As you proceed, random reflections of the city, the sky, passing cars and people, and the light/shadow from the fins, all animate on your retina. You are experiencing the city in a deeply personal and mindful way.

What was the greatest design challenge you faced during the project, and how did you navigate it?

The project context is a small scale, historic, 1- and 2-story retail district in the City of Palo Alto. A parking garage accommodating 650 cars could potentially overpower the neighborhood scale. To navigate this challenge, we re-focused how people would experience the building. We couldn’t make the building smaller, but we could make the “units of experience” smaller, meaning your personal take-away is not defined by the overall volume of the structure, but by the scale of the elements getting your attention. A brightly colored concrete seating niche, in a spatial pocket with flowering bushes, a rainwater leader dripping the morning’s rain onto a stone, and the play of shadows on a rough-hewn concrete wall. Or, an abstract composition of light and shadow pouring over the hood of your car, your dashboard, your body, as you navigate the building. Or, the grand sensory staircase.

© RossDrulisCusenbery Architecture Inc

© RossDrulisCusenbery Architecture Inc

How did the context of your project — environmental, social or cultural — influence your design?

The context for this site is a retail district not far from the Stanford University campus. Our selection of materials is based on a reference to and redefinition of the materials palette that can be found on that campus, offering a design that resonates with the cultural context of the nearby University, but is unique to the City itself. The terra cotta that defines the roofs throughout Stanford here become a filigree of horizontal and vertical fins. The ochre of the limestone campus architecture becomes fiber reinforced concrete wall panels. Stanford’s “red” appears on concrete site benches. The experience of these references will be subconscious, not literal, more at the level of resonance than literal reference.

What is your favorite detail in the project and why?

We were surprised at how effective the three-texture porcelain tile wall performs. The premise of this detail is simple. It’s a tall wall of white porcelain tile, with the variation provided by texture and finish surface only. The white tiles are an even and random mixture of matte, textured, and mirror-finishes, in varying sizes. The resulting surface glistens and dances as you walk by it, satisfying in its detailing simplicity.

© RossDrulisCusenbery Architecture Inc

© RossDrulisCusenbery Architecture Inc

How important was sustainability as a design criteria as you worked on this project?

From our perspective, sustainability is a non-negotiable design criterion. For the design of a parking structure, with limited energy savings opportunities, we focused on the areas available to us. The entire roof of the building is covered in photovoltaic panels, providing both heat island reduction and on-site energy generation. Every drop of water that falls on this open-air building is biofiltered through rain gardens around the perimeter of the building. In order to increase the capacity of stormwater management, the adjacent sidewalks have soil cells below the concrete, expanding the project’s retention and filtration capabilities, counteracting the fact that this is a dense, 100% site-coverage urban project.

© RossDrulisCusenbery Architecture Inc

© RossDrulisCusenbery Architecture Inc

In what ways did you collaborate with others, and how did that add value to the project?

The site selection and design of this parking structure was the subject of a years long, extensive formal public process. The methodology was defined by the City of Palo Alto through its detailed Architectural Review Board. The design of this project was the subject of public and Board review during every step of the process, from site selection, through massing, down to the selection of individual materials, even light fixtures. The opportunity to engage with a community of people invested in their environment was hugely beneficial to the outcome of the project.

© RossDrulisCusenbery Architecture Inc

© RossDrulisCusenbery Architecture Inc

Credits / Team Members

RossDrulisCusenbery Architecture, Inc. – Design Architect. Mallory Scott Cusenbery, Michael Ross, Arn Abadines Watry Design – Architect & Structural Engineer of Record.

Consultants: Interstice – Landscape Architecture WSP – Mechanical & Electrical Engineering


DalTile (Porcelain Tiles) Boston Valley Terra Cotta (Terra Cotta Baguette system) Swiss Pearl (Fiber cement panels)

California Avenue Parking Garage Gallery


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