Something strange has happened underground between Michigan Avenue and Columbus Drive. The Park District’s downtown garages, three of the scariest and ugliest places in town, have been cleaned up. Someone has actually swept the floors and washed down the tile walls in the entry to the main garage, which looked as if it hadn’t been cleaned since it was built in 1953. You can see your hand in front of your face down there because all the lights are working. Cars are no longer parked willy-nilly in the driving lanes. Armed security guards–off-duty policemen–are riding and walking around, and you can get traffic information about the roads outside the garages if you turn your radio on. You can even get your car serviced while you work or shop!

What happened? Myron Warshauer happened. In July the Park District hired his firm to manage its downtown garages. His firm’s Standard Parking Corporation, the parking king of Chicago and one of the largest parking companies in the country. Warshauer won out in a competition with five other companies to take over the Park District garages, and as of this writing he was waiting to hear if he’d won the bidding war to run O’Hare Airport’s parking garages. Standard is the company that owns that wild-looking garage with the Rolls-Royce front on Lake Street and also the Theatre District garage on Dearborn–it’s clearly an innovator in the parking business.

“Other people have hobbies. I have parking,” Warshauer told me as he walked me through the Park District garages, proudly showing off the improvements that had been made in one short week since the deal was signed. “For me, it’s a big turn-on. It’s fun as well as business. It’s an expression of myself and of my creativity. It’s a sport. Instead of being a scratch golfer I run garages. It sounds ridiculous but it’s what I like.”

Warshauer is a mild-mannered, slender, well-tailored man of 52 with a slight stoop. Meeting him was a big surprise. I’d imagined someone beefy, dressed down, someone with an office behind a garage. Instead, his corner office is in a beautifully appointed suite on the 34th floor of the building at 55 E. Monroe, and there’s a lovely view of the Loop skyline outside his windows. The suite was designed to suggest a parking garage, with white cinder block partitions and parking signs and photos of his major garages–along with a few Miro prints. “I want my senior people to have the feel of the business,” he explained.

In Chicago Warshauer is known as Mr. Parking. Elizabeth Hollander, Harold Washington’s planning commissioner and now with Chicago Community Trust, says he’s the man to talk to about the subject. Hollander got to know Warshauer well when he sought her approval to build new garages in the 80s. She says Chicago has “the best network of parking garages in the country,” with Warshauer leading the way. “He’s a class act,” she says.

Tom Kapsalis, former commissioner of aviation, hired Warshauer to help the city manage parking at O’Hare in the early 80s. (Warshauer bowed out in ’88 and now wants back in with much greater authority.) Kapsalis says, “I knew Myron was going to succeed like that because he was so good. He understands this stuff. I use a lot of his garages in Chicago. Warshauer has the best garages in the city. They’re the cleanest–you can eat off the floors–they’re easy to get in and out of, they’re marked properly. It’s easy to remember where your car is because of the gimmicks he uses. If you want to know about parking, ask Myron.”

If parking has always been, as Kapsalis says, “the stepchild of the business world,” it’s been getting more and more attention from architects and city planners in recent years. A survey of parking garages in the December 1991 issue of Architecture quoted architects Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk–“The parking garage has to cease being a minimal function building”–and Robert A.M. Stern–“We have to stop worrying about parking garages being horrors.”

In fact, forward-looking planners such as Hollander have been requiring–and developers such as Warshauer have been building–garages that are not horrors, that have amenities, that fit in. All around the country, observed Architecture, “are parking lots now where you can shop, play racquetball, work, or go to the theater. Even when garages are just for parking, growing numbers of communities are requiring that such projects be more contextual, that they not stick out in a setting of office buildings, houses, or historic storefronts.”

It’s no wonder that parking has begun to attract the attention of architects and city planners. A 1990 national study by Virginia-based Parking Market Research reported that nearly 1,200 multilevel parking structures were built between 1987 and 1990 at a total cost of $8.5 billion, and that they provided room for more than a million cars. Development was so brisk, in fact, that the parking business has suffered the same fate as commercial real estate in general: there’s a glut of parking spaces, just as there’s a glut of urban offices and hotel rooms. “Many garages have gone broke just like office buildings and hotels, and rents and parking fees have come down. We’re in a price war,” Warshauer says, complaining that in some locations garages that cost a fortune to build are now charging rates as low as $10 a day. Nevertheless, he’s now designing another garage for Chicago.

Ten dollars a day would have sounded like science fiction to Warshauer’s grandfather David when he opened his first parking lot in 1929. David Warshauer had made it big in real estate, owning several buildings and hotels, but then lost everything. With his brother Benjamin he started over by leasing from Northwestern University a vacant lot at the corner of Lake and Dearborn that had been the site of a Lincoln-Douglas debate. Next to it was the Tremont House, a hotel that would be razed in 1939.

The Warshauer brothers established the Tremont Auto Park, with room for about 200 cars; they also opened there the city’s first Standard Oil station, which they soon abandoned. (“I guess they did better at parking cars than at pumping gas,” Warshauer says.) After the hotel was leveled the Warshauers built a garage on the expanded lot.

In 1929 parking was already big business in Chicago, and it got bigger during a period in the 30s when parking was banned on the streets of the Loop. The first high-rise garage appeared in 1917 at LaSalle and Randolph. Built by the Hotel LaSalle, it was five stories tall, and cars were raised and lowered on elevators–the ramp concept was yet to come. A number of vertical garages followed, though the predominant mode of mass parking remained the surface lot.

By 1935, when David Warshauer’s son Sidney joined the business, the family ran several downtown lots. David Warshauer died in the early 40s and Sidney stepped into his shoes. But such acrimonious differences arose between Sidney and his uncle Benjamin that in 1949 they split up the company. They became competitors in a growing field that offered plenty of room for everyone.

Meanwhile, Sidney’s son Myron was learning the business. “I was 14 when I went to work parking cars and cashiering. I even worked on my nights off,” he recalls. “I’d go downtown to the movies with my girlfriend, and when we went to get the car out of my father’s lot after the show everything would be all backed up, so I’d help pull out the cars and she would help the cashier.” The Loop then was very busy at night, with lots of movie houses, theaters, nightclubs, and restaurants. And the lots were not self-park. Those would not begin to appear until the 60s.

Warshauer looks back with great fondness on his camaraderie with his dad’s other hikers, who taught him the business and also a street language that he hadn’t heard growing up in his very middle-class Jewish home in West Rogers Park. Parking was getting in his blood. When he graduated from grade school, the other kids prophesied that he would own a chain of garages.

In 1963, after earning an MBA from Northwestern University, Warshauer joined his father. At the time, Sidney Warshauer had two surface lots and four freestanding garages. The office, which Sidney, Myron, and one employee shared, was on the second floor of a garage at Dearborn and Monroe.

In the next ten years, the business would grow to about 35 facilities. Meanwhile, Benjamin’s son Stanley had joined his father’s business, which he maintained after his father died. But it hadn’t prospered. In the mid-70s, Stanley and Myron began to talk about merging. “The fight was between Stanley’s father and my father. There was no antagonism between us or even between Stanley and my father,” Warshauer explains. “Stanley’s business was still small. There was no room in it for growth, and Steven, who was Stanley’s son, also had parking in his blood. He was an accountant but he wanted into the parking business, and in Stanley’s few lots there was not much for him to do.”

Soon the two Warshauer families were back in business together, with Myron as president and CEO, Sidney as chairman of the board, and Stanley and Steven as senior vice presidents (Steven is now in charge of the Park District garages). The sole owner is Myron; everyone else is on salary.

In 1984 the firm had 47 facilities; today it has 170 in 15 cities. But all but eight of these are owned by others. The firm has gone from owning most of its garages to managing them for others.

“In the old days,” Warshauer tells me, “Lake Shore Drive buildings, hotels, and office buildings downtown didn’t have garages in them. So we had freestanding facilities to accommodate the parking for those buildings. Then, with the building boom in the 70s and 80s, the land on which to build parking garages and on which there were lots began to be built up. All these buildings began to build garages in the buildings, often underground. But the owners and managers didn’t know anything about parking. In the early 70s, we offered our services to the Sheraton Plaza Hotel at 150 E. Huron St. We’re still there today. That was a relatively new concept–to have a hotel with its own parking garage.

“That really marked the beginning of our growth pattern. It was the beginning of the development boom and people were building in parking, and I saw an opportunity to offer our services for a fee to them. I would go to them and say, ‘Look, parking is a very esoteric business. All I do is manage garages and I know how to do it. We’re service oriented and your mission is service. We will create good service for your tenants.'”

Developers began incorporating garages into their new buildings, Warshauer speculates, because “they needed to control their parking. It was enlightened development. Developers knew that parking was a big problem for high-rise dwellers or people coming to work in high-rise buildings, and so they provided it to make sure they could rent the space. The same thing was true of hotels. You better provide parking because many people now drive to the city.”

Consider the Palmer House. This Loop hotel contained no in-house parking and was offering patrons a garage across Wabash Avenue. But because Wabash is one-way, the garage was an ordeal to drive to. The hotel turned to Warshauer in 1988. Out of these talks came the Adams-Wabash Self Park at 17 E. Adams, both convenient and architecturally unobtrusive, an 11-story garage sitting above retail stores. When Warshauer first mentioned the garage to me, I couldn’t place it. I couldn’t recall a garage at the corner where one of my cherished hangouts, the Wabash Inn, had been. It turned out that I indeed knew the corner, but I hadn’t connected the parking entrance in the middle of the block with the building that from street level looked like any other new building downtown, more attractive than some.

Warshauer says he’s always been concerned with the presentability of his garages. He told me he painted his walls first white and blue, then white and brown, then all white “because we thought that was more dramatic.” Any of these color schemes represent a distinct improvement over the unpainted cinder block or cement walls of the average garage. He insists his employees wear uniforms; there’s a different uniform for each garage.

That said, until the mid-80s the aesthetics of parking were near the top of nobody’s list, not even his. The things that mattered were parking efficiency (including effective signage), revenue control (seeing to it that fees found their way to the owners), employee training, and cleanliness. Garages were basically ugly, but at least they could be well painted, clean, and efficient.

But in 1984 Warshauer and developer Richard Stein bid on the first parcel of land offered by the city in the North Loop redevelopment area. The planning department under Elizabeth Hollander was primarily interested in a garage at 203 N. LaSalle, but encouraged the developers to put up a building there as well. Hollander, Warshauer told me, had very high standards that he was forced to meet. “I learned a lot from her. The commission beats you to death to do more architecturally. I had to do some things to satisfy her that I didn’t want but I had to do it. She wanted a restaurant. I didn’t want a restaurant because they all go broke. But she did good for the city and I was happy to go along.”

“I believed,” Hollander says, “that parking lots were a necessity but they were also an urban blight. That is, every time you walked by a parking lot it was a lousy experience. They were ugly. It was this utilitarian sense. I thought there was no reason why that had to be. This stuff is being built on prime land. These things are making dough. Let’s at least insist that there’s retail on the bottom level so that there’s not just a blank wall with cars coming in and out. I had this thing about maintaining street-level activity. It was my most consistent theme. Because dead cities to me are scary. The great cities are where you can sit in a cafe and watch life going by. That’s why you want to be in a city. If you don’t want that, you can be in an office park somewhere. Go eat in the company cafeteria. So I just thought, if there’s really a market for these parking lots, which there was, I could press these guys into doing more. And they responded. It was neat. Warshauer never needed to be told how to do it. He had the initiative. He was really thinking about how to make it work and I really appreciated that.”

The result was a 1,200-car award-winning garage that is a focal point of a complex known as the Transportation Center. The lobby entrance to the garage is an elegant glass-walled, flower-bedecked rotunda. With this garage Warshauer developed what he calls his “theme” system. Each floor is identified with a city, not just by posters but by a popular tune played in the vestibule–“New York, New York,” “Meet Me in St. Louis, Louis” “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” and so on. Warshauer patented his musical “keys to floors” system and has used it in eight more garages.

Building a garage so innovative was a real kick, and Warshauer went on a roll. In ’86, again in partnership with Stein, he hired Stanley Tigerman to build a garage at 60 E. Lake; Tigerman’s facade resembles an old Rolls-Royce. It received national attention from architecture magazines.

In ’87 came the Theatre District Garage, built on the site of David Warshauer’s first lot. The Theatre District, with room for a thousand cars, was designed by the architectural firm of Hammond Beeby and Babka, which would later design the new main public library. As Hollander wished, this garage has retail stores, now mainly food outlets, on the ground floor. It is located across from the Selwyn and Harris theaters, once legitimate and more recently porn houses, that under the North Loop plan were supposed to be rehabilitated.

Warshauer built a garage to fit in. There’s a marquee at the entrance and another over the retail stores, and the lower facade resembles the theaters across Dearborn. The theme continues inside. As you enter the garage, a huge Al Hirshfeld drawing of Carol Channing greets you. Each floor’s vestibule is marked by a large poster advertising a famous Broadway show, and music from the show is piped in. The top floor is Fiddler on the Roof. The first level is Grease. In the lobby is a directory listing the shows by floor. It isn’t easy to forget where you’ve parked here.

Because the Selwyn and Harris were never restored, the Theatre District garage has been silent at night. But Warshauer’s investment will pay off in the next few years if the Goodman Theatre goes ahead with plans to move into the two theaters and build a new mainstage alongside.

In 1990 Warshauer and Stein hired the New York firm of Kohn Pederson Fox Associates, the architects of 333 West Wacker and 900 North Michigan, to build a 12-floor, 1,200-car garage at Franklin and Van Buren. Here the floors celebrate pop singers–Elvis Presley, Johnny Mathis, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, Paul McCartney, Bing Crosby . . .

In the same year, the Adams-Wabash garage opened with retail stores on the ground level and 670 parking spaces above. Because this garage is located only one block from the Art Institute, Warshauer decided to identify each floor with a great painting. The Art Institute, which he turned to for assistance, suggested he choose only paintings in its collection and offered Warshauer their transparencies to make prints from. Now, each vestibule displays a large, handsome reproduction of one of the Art Institute’s most famous works, among them Hopper’s Nighthawks and Seurat’s Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. The music theme didn’t work here. Warshauer says he found it impossible to key popular music to the paintings.

Warshauer now runs nine theme garages, one in Los Angeles, another in Boston, the rest in Chicago. Along the way he’s added more features. He paints each vestibule a different color to match the art on the wall. Many vestibules are carpeted. In the parking areas he’s introduced a variety of graphics, including duplicates of the vestibule art to help customers find their cars. To create more parking spaces, he’s reduced the size of some of them and marked them for small cars only.

Standard Parking has grown to 2,000 employees and it handles about $170 million in annual parking fees. Warshauer is not getting massively rich–parking profits aren’t that large–but he’s having a very good time. As he drove me around the Loop showing off his various garages I felt like I was in a car with a parking jock. Warshauer still drives with his left foot on the brake and takes turns on a dime, traits he learned as a teenager parking cars in the lots his grandfather began.

Standard is trying out several new ideas. At the John Hancock Center and the AT&T Corporate Center, and now in the Park District garages, Warshauer provides ParkNet, site-specific radio traffic news from Shadow Broadcast Services. As you drive out of the Hancock Center, you hear what to expect on Lake Shore Drive and Michigan Avenue.

A contract signed in June provides what Warshauer is calling Midas Carcare. Midas Muffler will come to any Standard Parking garage at a customer’s request, take the car to a service outlet, service the car, and return it the same day. All the customer has to do is give Midas a charge card number.

Warshauer’s garage at Post Office Square in Boston has been trying out a key-card system that will be introduced early next year in the Park District garages. A “debit card” purchased in advance is used to enter and leave the garage. As the driver leaves, the cost of parking is automatically deducted from the card.

On the drawing board is a device called Park Alert. Regular customers, which at this point means motorists who buy parking space by the month, will be given a key chain with a button that when pushed sets off a screech that’s loud enough to scare off an assailant. At the same time it signals security guards.

The new payment system coming to the Park District garages is supposed to eliminate long lines at the cashiers’ windows. New gates will replace the often nonworking gates at the entrances, and gates also will be installed at the exits. When you enter, a spitter machine will spit out your ticket, and before you retrieve your car you’ll find in the lobby new machines that will allow you to pay by cash or credit card. You’ll put in your ticket, the machine will tell you what you owe, you’ll put in your cash or a credit card, and the machine will give back your ticket. Before you can exit through a gate, you’ll have to put your ticket into another slot.

This computerized system, Warshauer explains, not only makes parking easier and faster but also gives him a reliable way of collecting money and counting parkers. “A machine doesn’t have a propensity to steal,” Warshauer says. He predicts that the garages’ current $14 million in annual revenues will rise considerably.

“Parking is like any retail business,” Warshauer says. “You do what you can to maximize revenue in any given garage. In parking, you have to make it attractive enough to induce more volume. Better service, nicer uniforms, cleaner garages, better lighting, whatever frills you can have. Do you wash the cars? My dad once opened a garage and gave out orchids. You can also maximize revenue by cutting costs. Can you park as many cars with fewer employees and still give good service? Can you buy your tickets in bigger volume? Do you use a different kind of light bulbs to increase energy efficiency? Then the other facet is that I went out to get more garages to manage.”

The costs of managing a garage are usually borne by the owner. “Sometimes,” Warshauer says, “as part of the negotiations, they require that we pay part of the costs, maybe the parking equipment, maybe the tickets, the gates, the computer.” Warshauer might have to put up as much as $25,000, but that’s rare. Most garage owners even pay for the uniforms of Standard’s personnel. The O’Hare project would be an exception: the city would require Standard to install about $5 million in new equipment. But the risk is worth it, Warshauer says. O’Hare has unlimited possibilities.

For his services, Warshauer receives either a flat fee, a percentage of the gross profits, or a combination. “We don’t have risks by comparison with other businesses. We’re in property management, which is generally risk free. But it’s a question of risk reward. We don’t make lots of money. We make more money by running more garages and if we run them successfully, but we don’t make a lot of money, so my nature is to be somewhat risk averse. We’re not in business to have big home runs. We’re in business to have continuity and to provide services at modest and reasonable fees. We don’t get big fees for running garages. The owners know we’re not taking any risk, so they pay us commensurate with the risk. But they also pay us based on the quality of the job we do, and we may get a little more than a competitor because we do a better job.”

Hardly anyone knows who Warshauer is. As we drove around in the company car, a Park Avenue Buick, visiting his various garages, Warshauer gave his name whenever we exited to see if the cashiers would recognize it. They didn’t. They had to check with their managers before letting us through without paying. Warshauer smiled each time. He didn’t mind. But when he caught a cashier out of uniform, he hopped out of the car and found the garage manager.

“It’s a small thing,” he told me, “but I’m a stickler for all those small things. They’re what makes the difference in my business.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Mike Tappin.