Parking for the 21st century
Not only do they look different, but some of the new garages are going robotic
By Mac Daniel, Boston Globe
March 5, 2005
Imagine pulling into a parking garage, swiping an access card, driving on to a steel pallet, turning off the engine, and walking away as your car is automatically turned 180 degrees, is swiped by a life-sensing detector to make sure it is empty, and is carried away for storage by a computer-operated lift.
Upon your return, you swipe your card again. Within two minutes your vehicle is returned, your account is charged, and you whisk away without needing to navigate a damp elevator, pay an attendant, look for scratches, or endure the ugly panorama of yet another concrete parking monstrosity.
In a car-loving city like Boston, where real estate is at a premium and four cars vie for every one on-street parking spot, this science fiction is quickly becoming reality as robotic parking slowly comes to town. Although the technology is foreign to Boston and much of the United States, developers are looking at automated parking more and more as cities contend with rising property costs, more cars, and the need to do more in often cramped spaces. The technology is expected to someday revolutionize development, allowing builders to make a normally small 60-by-60-foot space both functional and lucrative.
''I think everybody's going to be excited about it," said attorney Terry McDermott, who is working with developer John Kavanagh and his Danvers-based Parking Solutions to bring the technology to New England and the rest of the United States.
For advocates of the technology, which is both more expensive than conventional parking and could require higher fees than a standard garage, the overall impact on both the environment (no idling cars) and local traffic is worth the price.
Robotic Parking, for whom Kavanagh is the New England distributor, cites a 1999 Department of Transportation study that suggested more than 50 percent of the traffic in a typical downtown is on the road searching for a parking space.
Robotics is predicted to revolutionize not only parking but urban planning as well. It's a far cry from the sprawl of multistory garages or antiquated elevated ''lifts" that were once cutting-edge, allowing developers to build garages in smaller spaces because they did not need ramps.
Thus far, the most revolutionary approach to building a parking garage is altering the exterior design. The eight-level, 1,150-vehicle garage at 80 Landsdowne St. in Cambridge, which was designed to fit into rather than flop into the local streetscape, is a good example. The staircases are encased in glass blocks, allowing them to glow at night without overwhelming users or passersby.
In Hoboken, N.J., home to one of two automated garages in the United States, 324 cars fit within a 100-by-100-foot lot disguised as a brownstone and not much higher than four stories. The garage, now two years old, currently has a 200-vehicle waiting list for spaces in the crowded residential neighborhood across the river from New York.
''Land value is so expensive now, and the space you lose in the ramps can give you a lot more parking," said Jacqueline L. Smith, director of special projects for SpaceSaver Parking Co. in Chicago, which operates another automated garage for a high-end apartment house in Washington, D.C. The depth of the garage: 32 feet, with a footprint of 60 feet by 106 feet. The cost: $1.5 million, or about $20,000 for each of the garage's 74 stalls.
Without the automatic parking, the developer of the building has said, it could have offered no parking at all, a big drawback for a building where an efficiency apartment rents for $1,300 per month.
The area that these garages can fit into is the key, Smith said, along with the low maintenance costs and little or no personnel costs.
The technology, which is embraced in Europe and wherever there is a car glut and space crunch, has been slow to catch on here, with insurers hesitant to back the new lifts, and cities prone to overregulating them.
Kavanagh said a Boston hospital has issued a letter of intent to build a 400-car automated garage, which he said could be one to two years away from being built.