February 2007 marked the third time in U.S. history that a fully automated garage opened its computerized doors to the paying public. New York City welcomed the garage as a complement to a retail and condo complex going up in Chinatown.
Several years ago, it seemed America was on the verge of a parking makeover with the first fully automated garages making big entrances in Hoboken, N.J., and Washington, D.C., and many others slated to open in urban locales.
But a spate of circumstances, including well publicized problems surrounding Hoboken's garage, stringent government building codes, reluctant developers and an uncertain public, among other barriers, kept the garages overseas.
However, the new garage, amid Manhattan's bustling Chinatown, may change how deals are struck between the developers, owners and governments who build these types of facilities.
"The problem with automated parking in the U.S. has been that most of the garages have been proposed on sort of a grand scale," said Josh Van Horn, founder, editor and publisher of Parking Today magazine. "The fact is that in Europe and Asia, most of the garages or automated garages are relatively small."
At 125 feet by 75 feet, the Chinatown structure qualifies as compact.
These new garages allow city developers and public officials to plan urban developments more effectively, said Ari Milstein, director of planning for Automotion Parking Systems, the designer of the garage.
Automotion is the U.S. subsidiary of Germany's Stolzer Parkhaus, which has 32 facilities in 11 countries.
Automotion-affiliated company American Development Group bought the Chinatown property in 2003 and charged Automotion, which offers high-tech parking solutions, with the design. MJS Garage Management was retained to run the garage.
Automotion's setup is ideal because its sister company developed the land and owns the site, Van Horn said, meaning it enjoys full access to the garage's software and can hire its own maintenance crew.
The 18,000-square-foot plot on narrow Baxter and Hester streets was once home to a 100-car, surface parking lot. Now the same footprint accommodates 24 condominiums, ground floor retail and a 67-vehicle underground automated garage - only 33 fewer cars than the former parking facility.
Automated garages take up less space, reduce pollution - since cars don't circle around the garage - and can be built without fire exits, pedestrian elevators, lighting, ventilation or ramps. Theft and other damages that often plague conventional garages are diminished because there's no human interaction with the vehicles.
Even with these incentives, private developers and municipalities in the United States hesitated to embrace automated garages, though their European and Asian counterparts have been using automated garages successfully for decades.
One reason for widespread overseas adoption is that heavily populated cities in foreign countries have long been affected by land-use problems.
"Europe and Japan have more constrained land uses, by and large. I think they confronted demand management strategies and congestion management strategies earlier than the United States did because they had the need for it," said Susan Shaheen, Policy and Behavioral Research program leader for California's Partners for Advanced Transit and Highways, at the University of California, Berkeley.
Stateside adoption of the automated garages was slowed in part because of rigid U.S. building codes, which differ by region, and builders and architects attached to the old way of doing things.
"They are completely uncomfortable in most jurisdictions with applying conventional garages' building codes to this type of system because of its automated nature," said Dale Denda, director of research at PMRC, a parking research company, explaining that local governments don't know whether to classify automated garages as warehouse systems, conventional garages or neither.
But Denda said there is hope for change because building codes have migrated over the years to accommodate new technologies.
New York City, known for its strict building codes, had little difficulty approving the Chinatown project, Milstein said.
The United States has also been notorious for missing the boat on new technology and implementing the technology only after years of trial overseas.
"All of it is delayed because U.S. culture is a little more stubborn when it comes to adopting new technology," Milstein said, adding that the problem of growing metropolitan areas combined with expensive land makes developers and governments increasingly desperate for parking solutions, and could offer an opening for automated garages.
Picking up Speed
The genesis of automated parking, Milstein said, is automated warehousing systems, which have enjoyed widespread use in U.S. industrial settings for years.
Sensors, elevator-like mechanical components and software constitute the garage's inner workings. Though the process is entirely automated, an onsite employee answers questions and handles problems.
In the garage, a fixed pallet hauls vehicles vertically and horizontally. Upon retrieval, the software finds the car, rotates it outbound and returns it within an estimated two minutes. Mechanical redundancies ensure that the garage can resume its normal functioning during software glitches.
To dispel the garage's mystique, drivers can watch the handling of their vehicles on a closed-circuit television outside the garage. Denda said the technology was first used to shuffle cars in the 1950s when noncomputerized automated garages were used abroad, and in U.S. cities like New York and St. Louis.
Fully automated garages like the one in Chinatown were first designed in Europe 20 years ago, he said.
The second automated garage in the United States was built shortly after the Hoboken garage and operates in Washington, D.C., serving the residents of a high-rise, luxury condominium. The garage parks 74 cars and was designed by Spacesaver Parking Company.
Van Horn said the Washington, D.C., and Chinatown garages are ideal uses of the technology because they don't demand a big slice of city space - they take up approximately half the room a conventional garage would.
"The cost of the equipment is almost meaningless to the additional value added to the project - of gaining back acres of land," Milstein said.
Though automated garages can cost twice as much as conventional garages, comparing the two is like comparing an all-wheel drive truck to a sleek sports car - they serve the same purpose but are valued in different settings. Van Horn said automated garages aren't meant to replace concrete, open space garages. Instead, they are meant for close-quarter urban environments or infill construction.
On average, Denda said, a conventional garage holds approximately 800 cars whereas an automated garage holds fewer than 200 cars.
In October 2002, the first fully automated garage was built in the United States, and it's been marred with difficulties ever since. Hoboken, N.J., owns the 314-space aboveground parking facility. Robotic Parking Systems of Clearwater, Fla., originally operated the garage, which is similar to the Chinatown garage.
The facility, which cost millions more than expected, dropped a Cadillac DeVille six stories and a Jeep four stories, and has been plagued by a lack of clarity in agreements, intellectual property rights disputes and high-profile attacks launched from both sides. The ensuing lawsuit is pending a verdict in court. A Government Technology article (Robot Garage Hijacks Cars, November 2006) chronicled the garage's troubles and stakeholders' arguments.
But the consensus is that the Hoboken experience is situation specific and was influenced less by the technology and more by the difficult process of accepting new technology.
Though the Hoboken garage spawned automated parking
skeptics, impeding growth, the industry is now on the upswing, Van Horn said.
Denda said automated parking could still work for future publicly owned projects, explaining that contentions between municipalities and private industry crop up in many projects, especially when the territory is uncharted, or when new technology is first established.
"It happens every day in one sense. Get a private entity and a public entity, they cut a deal and their goals aren't met," Denda said, noting that even conventional garages faced hurdles when they were first constructed.
For now, the Automotion setup seems to be working because the company has teamed with the same developer for more New York projects and is set to break ground this year and next, building another garage in Manhattan, and three in Brooklyn. All will be mixed-use and the largest facility, to be built in Brighton Beach, will house 132 cars.
"If you've got a car, and you live in an urban area, and you can't build up, and you can't build out, eventually you have to do something about how you park that car." said Jeff Faria, a spokesman for Robotic. "So eventually this just happens."
Faria said he's hopeful that automated parking will catch on in the United States. After all, he said, if New York, which peers across the river at Hoboken, has shaken off the garage's negative image, so can everybody else.
Robotic plans to move forward with several projects - the majority of which will be abroad. On the company's agenda is a facility for the ultra-modern Emirates Financial Towers in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, another garage in Saudi Arabia and a 229-car garage for a beach resort in Hollywood, Fla.