May 3, 2010 By Russell Nichols
If you can imagine a parking garage with a valet service run by robots, then you have a good idea of what's up the road in West Hollywood, Calif.
In June, city officials plan to issue a request for qualifications (RFQ) for the city's first fully automated parking garage for City Hall visitors, staff and commercial visitors, according to Oscar Delgado, the city's director of public works and project lead. Essentially the proposed 200-space parking structure will use computer-controlled motorized lifts, conveyers and shuttles to transport cars from an entry bay to a parking space and vice versa. No humans needed.
But the project is still in its early stages. City planners are currently meeting with fire officials to address any concerns about structural integrity before the RFQ goes out. The idea, Delgado said, is to prequalify as many vendors as possible to start a bidding war.
The automated parking garage is not a new concept. In fact, these garages have existed overseas for decades. America finally caught on in the early 2000s with the opening of the first fully automated garage in Hoboken, N.J. But Hoboken's garage was hammered by mechanical mishaps. That, along with strict building codes, wary developers and the recession has stalled automated parking projects in the U.S. in recent years.
But now, as local governments search for ways to be green and save green, more cities are thinking automated garages may be a smart solution. And officials in West Hollywood, a city known for its green practices, believe their parking garage plans will drive similar efforts throughout the region.
"This is relatively new technology to the Western United States," Delgado said. "A lot of people have their eye on us because if we go first, they'll follow suit."
Technical difficulties plagued the nation's first fully automated garage in Hoboken, N.J. In 2004, the facility dropped an unoccupied Cadillac Deville six floors and a Jeep four stories the following year. In 2006, a malfunction that went unrepaired for 26 hours trapped cars inside the garage, originally operated by Robotic Parking Systems of Clearwater, Fla. But proponents of automated parking call Hoboken's garage an anomaly and point to new technology and special sensors designed prevent such incidents from happening.
Built shortly after the Hoboken garage, the second automated garage opened in Washington, D.C., serving residents of a high-end condominium. In 2007, New York became the third location in the United States to let robots handle parking duties at a garage in Chinatown.
Automotion Parking Systems, an independent company and the U.S. partner of Germany's Stolzer Parkhaus, designed the Chinatown garage and numerous automated parking facilities around the world. It has eight projects in different stages of development in American cities, including Chicago, Toronto and New Orleans, according to Ari Milstein director of planning for Automotion.
But after 2007, he said, as the nation's financial instability stalled the push for automated parking garages in the U.S.
"A lot of projects that were in discussion and planning and ready to move forward were either put on hold or put off because the real estate market has soured in the last few years," Milstein said.
Recently, he said, interest has been building among government entities. His company, he added, has been providing logistics support for the West Hollywood project.
What's the appeal? For one, the automated parking process is typically less expensive (about $20,000 to $30,000, Milstein said) than average parking garages. Proponents say that these facilities also minimize risk of damage and theft because the public is not allowed in the parking area.
Another key advantage is the speed. The motorized lifts transport cars to and from parking spaces in about two minutes. Customers simply drive into an entry bay, exit the car and the machines handle the rest. This also eliminates the need for a driving ramp, which means an automated garage can hold two to three times more cars.
In West Hollywood, one of the main drivers for the proposed parking structure is the potential reduction in carbon dioxide emissions. No more spewing of emissions from motorists hopelessly looking for a place to park. In West Hollywood, officials also plan to install solar panels on top of the garage to have a zero energy-use facility.
"It's an energy-free facility that doesn't pollute," Delgado said. "It's the equivalent of taking 92 cars off the road each year or planting 67,000 trees."
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