Welcome to Millennium Garages
By Thomas P. Schaffner
Schaffner Communications, Inc.
“Here lies an urban gentleman,
Who failed to make his mark,
He died with his lifetime squandered,
Hunting some place to park.”
Omar Barker, 1946
What does parking have to do with culture? Everything, especially when you’re talking about the Chicago Cultural Mile, one of the richest cultural, educational, leisure-time and commercial districts in the nation.
The Cultural Mile (Michigan Ave. between the Chicago River and Roosevelt Road and eastward to the Museum Campus) teems with people at all times — office workers during weekday business hours, students attending area educational institutions, tourists visiting museums and parks, day-trippers on outings for the weekend and patrons of live theater, the symphony orchestra and a variety of other events and shows during the evening. While many of these people access the Cultural Mile via public transportation or on foot, a significant portion drive their own vehicles, which means that in order to effectively handle the incoming masses, the district must have ample parking capacity that is conveniently located to all of the businesses and attractions that populate the area.
While lack of parking capacity is a problem in other tourist-dense areas of the city, the Cultural Mile is fortunate to have Millennium Garages — the largest downtown public parking system in the United States — centered in the heart of the district (or perhaps more appropriately, “underneath” the district). The parking system consists of four adjacent but separate underground garages — Grant Park North, Grant Park South, Millennium Lakeside Garage and Millennium Park Garage. The gargantuan complex covers 3.8 million square feet of space and offers more than 9,100 parking spaces that are open to the general public 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
The beauty of the facility is that each of the garages is located only a few short steps from some of the city’s largest employers, educational institutions, most popular tourist attractions and special events — Aon, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Illinois, CNA Insurance and Macy’s; DePaul University (downtown campus), National Louis University, Roosevelt University and Columbia College; Grant Park, Millennium Park, and Maggie Daley Park; the Auditorium Theater, the Symphony Center, and Harris Theater; Art Institute, Buckingham Fountain and Chicago Cultural Center; and special events such as the NFL Draft, Taste of Chicago, Grant Park Music Festival and Lollapalooza. The proximity to all of these locations alone is worth the price to park there.
But it gets even better. Because all of the area’s destinations have different peak times — weekday business hours for workers, staggered hours for students, weekend days for parks and museums, and evenings for concerts, plays and other events — the four Millennium Garages are rarely at full capacity. This is good news for those who fear driving into the city only to find full parking lots. The sheer size of the facility, as well as the staggered usage patterns of many of its patrons, enables Millennium Garages to almost always have empty spaces available for incoming customers.
“For the most part, parking is a commodity business,” said Kim Hyla, director of marketing/sales, LAZ Parking, managers of all four Millennium Garages. “Because there is a lot of competition between parking garages, our prices don’t really differ that much. If you want to stand out from your competition, you have to find other ways to differentiate yourself.”
Which is exactly what LAZ Parking has done to Millennium Park Garages — invested a lot of time and resources to make them significantly different from the competition and, in the process, more attractive to their customers. The differences fall into three general categories — physical differences, amenities and community relationships.
Among the first things that one notices when pulling into one of the Millennium Garages is that there are no narrow ramps or spirals that must be navigated in order to get to another level. The ramps that do exist are wide and straight. Because the garage floor plans are horizontal and not vertical, there simply aren’t that many levels to park on in the first place. It’s a layout that makes things easy for visitors.
A second item that customers notice right away is that individual parking spaces in the Millennium Garages are wider than those in competing lots. Again this is due the sheer size of the facilities. There not only is room for a lot of parking spaces, there also is room to make each slot wider, providing customers with plenty of space to get in and out of their vehicles.
The garages are also well lit, there is ample directional signage, they are well populated with employees and security personnel, they are clean and the entry and exit points for each garage are on major city thoroughfares (Michigan Ave., Columbus Drive), which makes access and egress faster and more direct, especially during rush hour or at the beginning or end of special events.
Another way that Millennium Garages differentiates itself from other parking facilities is with amenities it is able to offer to its customers — modern, clean, functional elevators and escalators and regularly cleaned restrooms. Technology, such as the ability to reserve parking online, smartphone compliant ticketing and payment systems is another differentiator and also an increasingly necessary addition that brings parking facilities into the 21st century.
Perhaps the most innovative way that Millennium Garages distinguishes itself is in the relationships that it builds and establishes with all of the businesses, institutions and attractions in the district. According to Hyla, it’s mainly her job to meet with officials at these organizations in an effort to ensure that their parking needs are met on a daily basis. For boaters who use nearby Monroe Harbor this means a discounted seasonal parking rate (May through October); for senior citizen patrons of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra it means ensuring that the route from the garage to the concert is easy, well-marked, secure and accessible; for fans attending football games at Soldier Field it’s a free 7-minute shuttle bus ride between the garage and stadium before and after every game; for still-under-construction Maggie Daley Park, it’s making sure the garage’s restroom facilities are open early enough to augment those that are currently available at the park.
Millennium Garages also has established an effective partnership with the Chicago Cultural Mile Association and has recently become a full-fledged member of the organization. By providing discounted parking to participating businesses and institutions and by playing an active role in promoting such Cultural Mile events as “Second Fridays,” Millennium Garages has become a key player in the organization’s overall efforts to make this one of the most diverse, interesting and popular districts in Chicago.
“Parking is important because it sets the tone for the rest of your downtown experience,” Hyla said. “Visits to the area begin and end in the parking garage, which means we are a contributing factor to the overall perception of your visit. If our facilities are clean, safe, conveniently located, well-marked with signs, appropriately priced and are not in any way a burden to you, we believe you are much more likely to have a positive perception associated with your visit. So that’s what we strive for.”
A long-time slogan associated with the City of Chicago is, “The City that Works.” One wonders if the slogan would still ring true — or even exist — if Millennium Garages were not in the picture.