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InTransition Magazine : Transportation Planning, Practice & Progress

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Insider Insight

Automated Parking Saves Space in Tight Places

By Shannon Sanders McDonald
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Shannon Sanders McDonald, AIA, is a NCARB LEED-certified practicing architect and the author of "The Parking Garage: Design and Evolution of a Modern Urban Form," published by the Urban Land Institute.

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Renters at the Palisades apartment building in Towson, Md., will save time, space, the environment and the walkability of their downtown this summer—all by parking their cars.


Photo courtesy of Jani Real Estate

and Park Plus, Inc.

Automated parking systems like this one, designed

by Park Plus, Inc., of Oakland N.J., enable drivers

to park in a small garage-like space, exit the vehicle

and watch as it's filed away in the levels above.

Once complete, the luxury high-rise will contain the largest automated parking system of its kind in the United States. Residents will drive into an area that looks like a small single-family garage, step away and watch through a glass wall as their vehicles are turned, moved and hoisted into a dry, safe and secure parking spot.

Automated parking is a technology that efficiently “parks” a vehicle using a three-dimensional movement system guided by computers. Once parked on the turntable, palette, track or tray, depending on the specific system, the cars are lifted with hydraulics or electric power and stacked one above the other on shelves. Cars can be retrieved in less than two minutes after a driver swipes a card to identify their vehicle.

With automated parking, there’s no more need to search a sea of cars at the mall trying to remember where you parked, no more door dings or scratches. In fact, no human even touches the car once a driver parks it on the lifts.
Cubic feet are the bottom line when deciding if automated parking is right for a project. A site often must be developed to its maximum potential to make a project viable, and if the parking area can be minimized, the space that was saved can be designed for a higher return. Providing parking in built-out areas where infill lot conditions are typical is difficult and automated parking is often the best solution.

Encore Development, the owner of the Palisades, determined that the cost of automated parking was “competitive if not less” than a ramp garage. The project will feature the all-electric Auto-Park system designed by Park-Plus, Inc., of Oakland, N.J. Its inclusion resulted in a 60 percent more efficient use of space and was estimated to be 25-30 percent less expensive than if all ramp parking had been chosen.

The Palisades’ designer, the Architects Collaborative, saw the project as a unique opportunity to create energy-efficient parking while stepping away from traditional housing concepts. The concrete structure is also designed to support the building’s green roof and a swimming pool. No mechanical ventilation and minimal lighting was required. The project may potentially receive an Innovation in Design credit toward Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification, an internationally recognized standard for green building practices.

A Good Fit for Their Communities

Earlier versions of the automated parking concept were a popular solution in the 1950s for many small towns and large cities struggling to maintain their urban fabric while accommodating the surging number of automobiles. Although these systems were semi-automatic since they required the assistance of “car jockeys,” they in essence had the same functionality as today’s technologies.

Automated parking now seeing a resurgence as a way to meet high parking requirements in restrictive site conditions. However, it also has a great deal to offer for meeting sustainability goals.

Although more and more communities are being designed for walkability, people embracing the lifestyle still want and need their own cars, so the demand for parking remains. Parking lots and garages spread buildings apart and are counterproductive to creating walkable communities. Only underground and automated parking can relieve this conundrum.

One of the greatest benefits of automated parking is its reduction in air pollution. According to research cited in a 2009 Parking magazine article by “Gridlock Sam” Schwartz, a 350-space automated parking system reduced carbon monoxide by 77 percent, nitrogen oxides by 81 percent and carbon dioxide by 83 percent compared to a ramp facility with the same capacity.

An office/retail project in downtown Annapolis, Md., designed by Bohl Architects added 18 underground automated spaces while allowing the new building to fit within the space of its predecessor. This complemented the city’s historic urban fabric while providing much-needed local parking spaces. In the last eight years, 10 systems have been completed in the U.S. with at least six more under construction and at least one older system being renovated.
New automated facilities are also appearing in Europe, typically connected with other amenities. A residential project in Copenhagen incorporated two 700-car towers with a public garden and skate park between them, as well as interior community waiting areas.

Origins and Spread

Automated parking’s origins date back to as early as 1905 in Paris, which at the time had the most cars of any urban environment. It was understood that the city needed to park cars densely so that its urban fabric would remain intact. A groundbreaking project, Garage Rue de Ponthieu by Auguste Perret, set the standard for concrete construction and the internal organization that we still see today for many automated systems. Here, cars were driven on to an elevator, raised and driven into a space on one of two levels above.

In the 1920s, forerunners of automated parking systems appeared in U.S. cities like Los Angeles, Chicago, New York and Cincinnati. Some of these 15-plus-story structures are still standing, and have been adapted for new uses. One of the Kent Automatic Parking Garages in New York (now known as the Sofia Apartments) is an Art Deco landmark that was converted into luxury condominiums in 1983. A system that is now found all over Japan—the “ferris-wheel,” or paternoster system—was created by the Westinghouse Corporation in 1923 and subsequently built in 1932 on Chicago’s Monroe Street. The Nash Motor Company created the first glass enclosed version of this system for the Chicago Century of Progress Exhibition in 1933, and it was the precursor to a more recent version, the Smart Car Towers in Europe.

Automated parking spread more rapidly across the U.S. as downtowns struggled to cope with the parking demand brought on by the growing suburban automobile lifestyle. The most popular systems were the Bowser and the Pigeon Hole, with over 74 constructed by 1957. Some are still in operation.

After this brief burst, automated parking was rarely built again domestically, although it did catch on in Asia; there are 1.6 million automated spaces currently in Japan. One system built in Honolulu in the 1980s is an important part of a small office building on a congested mixed-use street.

Automated parking can serve many purposes, allowing both new walkable communities and historic towns to flourish while accommodating the mobility needs of our modern world. Soon your car may only be the swipe of a card away.

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