November 8, 2007 By Jessica Weidling
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.
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