THE NEW YORK TIMES
Sunday, September 21, 2003
Cars parked at a robotic garage in Hoboken
ride to their computer-assigned parking spaces
atop a pallet. The pallet is moved by motorized
carrier on and off an elevator and then on and
off a platform that moves laterally to align
the car with the designated space.
1) The customer drives into the garage and
parks on a steel pallet.
2) The computer-controlled carrier pulls the
pallet in and rotates it by 180 degrees, so
the car is facing forward when it is retrieved.
3) One of two elevators takes the pallet and
car to an upper level.
4) The pallet is transferred to another carrier
that moves it laterally to an open space.
5) The car and its pallet are moved into the
designated parking spot.
By ANTOINETTE MARTIN
IT lumbered and thudded into existence -- three
years late, some still-debated but hefty amount
over budget -- but the Hoboken municipal parking
garage that opened its robotically controlled
doors last year displays a stunning agility.
It lifts and carries cars about on computer-controlled
steel pallets as if they were delicate ballerinas,
moving with precision and speed inside a structure
that is remarkably compact.
While performance tests are still going on,
the garage is limited to operating at two-thirds
of its full capacity. When all systems are go,
however, it will park 324 cars on just a 100-by-100-foot
lot. The seven-level garage is 56 feet high,
not much higher than the four-story row houses
that are its neighbors.
''This is amazingly proficient use of space,''
commented Darius Sollohub, a New Jersey Institute
of Technology professor who studies parking
and urban land use. ''It may provide one of
the solutions to the most important conflict
in urban design: where do you put all the cars
in environments where car volume is high and
space is at a premium?''
Although an automated garage is more expensive
to build it typically takes only about half
as much precious real estate as a conventional
ramped garage to handle the same number of cars,
or even more. That is why in European and Asian
cities, the automatic garage was long ago anointed
as the best solution, Mr. Sollohub said.
The Hoboken structure, designed by Gerhard
Haag, an engineer and architect born in Germany,
where ramped garages are rare and automatic
garages common, is a first-of-its-kind in the
United States. There are other automated garages
in the country, some dating from the 1950's.
But the Hoboken garage -- and another smaller
one designed by a different company in a Washington
apartment building -- belong to a new generation
of fully automated garages that parking industry
specialists say is generating new interest.
Indeed, Mr. Haag said, there are 67 American
cities, including Manhattan, where his company
is currently discussing proposals.
Hoboken's Garden Street Garage is completely
computerized, with two identical elevator systems
that are able to move simultaneously in both
vertical and horizontal directions and communicate
with each other by wireless transmitters. The
garage's computer figures out which of the hundreds
of spaces in the building a vehicle should occupy,
and then delivers it there untouched by human
A monthly parker pulls into one of four driveways
at the red-brick building on Garden Street,
which on the outside looks pretty much like
a group of Hoboken row houses. The driver powers
the car forward a few yards onto a steel pallet,
maneuvering the wheels between guardrails as
instructions appear on an L.E.D. signboard about
correct alignment, then turns off the engine
and gets out.
After locking the car, the parker swipes a
card in front of a magnetic reader, and while
the sign on the wall is flashing a reminder
to step back, automatic elevator doors close
around the car and it is whisked to a computer-assigned
The computer factors in the vehicle's size
when making an assignment, putting larger S.U.V.'s
on lower levels. It also takes into account
the driver's schedule on previous visits, putting
vehicles whose owners enter and exit frequently
in the slots that the system can most easily
When the owner returns for the car and swipes
the card again, the process begins in reverse.
Within seconds, another electronic sign announces
at which bay the car will appear, still on the
pallet where the parker placed it. In its first
year of operation, according to the computer
records, the average wait to retrieve a car
was 2.5 minutes.
THE key breakthrough with his type of design,
according to Mr. Haag, is that the mechanized
system is ''truly redundant.'' With older automated
designs, said Mr. Haag, all three movements
a car elevator can make -- in and out, up and
down, side to side -- are powered by one central
unit. If any single part fails, the garage becomes
Mr. Haag's patented design has dual systems,
so that its two elevators can move separately
and independently, and the three types of movements
they make are each powered by separate motors.
Furthermore, each individual motor has a backup.
There are twin motors powering the rollers under
the pallets, for example, each working at less
than half capacity and programmed to take over
if the other should fail.
Besides increasing reliability, notes Dale
F. Denda of PMRC, a national parking market
research company, the fully automatic garage
means ''throughput'' is enhanced -- parking
lingo for shortening the time it takes to store
cars and retrieve them.
The one other fully automatic garage in the
United States is set beneath the Summit Grand
Parc, an apartment building two blocks from
the White House in Washington that incorporates
both a new apartment tower and historic structure
that was once home to the United Mineworkers.
Designed by the Spacesaver Parking Company,
a division of the Mid-American Elevator Company,
and using equipment manufactured by a German
concern, Wohr, the garage parks just 74 cars,
and has only one automated elevator system.
''But without the automated system,'' said
Michael A. Underwood, a senior vice president
of the project's developer, Summit Properties,
''we wouldn't have had parking at all. For the
kind of luxury apartments we provide, we had
to have parking -- but this was a narrow lot
between existing buildings, and with a conventional
garage, we found ourselves hamstrung by site
constraints. Automation provided an option.''
Urban land use specialists say that this sort
of situation will continue to occur in congested
American cities, and that automated parking
could become a widely used option. Tomorrow,
in fact, a seminar on automated parking is scheduled
at the Urban Land Institute, a Washington research
institute, using the Summit Grand Parc as a
The Spacesaver company has another 99-car automatic
garage that has been approved in Aspen. The
company reports additional interest in various
Northeastern metropolitan areas, and a spokeswoman
said it also had a project under discussion
in New York City, although she would not provide
details about the site.
The Manhattan site that Mr. Haag is eyeing
would involve tearing down an old building and
constructing a privately operated 300-car fully
Monthly rates for parkers would be competitive
with those at a conventional garage, said Mr.
Haag, ''or else the market wouldn't exist.''
In Hoboken, a standard municipal fee of $200
per month applies, at the automated garage and
all others. In Washington, Summit Grand Parc
residents pay $225 monthly, and for S.U.V. size
Until very recently, the American way has been
to indulge a cultural passion for driving, even
in a parking structure, observed Shannon Sanders
McDonald, an architect and scholar who is writing
two books on the history of parking garages
and land use -- one of them with Mr. Haag.
''People love their cars in this country,''
Ms. McDonald said. ''and the car-loving culture
is the main reason for the garage typology.''
In Europe and Asia, the development history,
traffic patterns, and parking ''culture'' are
different, she said, and cities simply are not
built to accommodate the hulking presence of
a typical ramped structure. There are roughly
5,000 automated garages on those two continents
-- including dozens that are fully computerized
and robotically operated like the ones in Hoboken
Ramped garages are actually very unpopular
with many Americans -- ''ignored at best,''
Ms. McDonald said, ''hated by many.'' Why would
people loathe a parking garage? Let her count
the ways: ''They are perceived to be ugly, grimy,
scary places where muggers are waiting to snatch
purses and wallets, you will probably get your
car paint scratched or your fender bent, and
you are more than likely to get trapped in a
long line of cars spewing exhaust when you're
trying to get to the exit.''
Ms. McDonald, an architect who currently serves
as an adjunct professor of architecture at North
Dakota State University in Fargo, says garages
have been made a ''scapegoat for urban ills.''
Yet she and others in the emergent field of
scholarly research on parking -- along with
entrepreneurs like Mr. Haag -- make a case that
automatic garages actually help alleviate some
of what ails modern cities, by eliminating the
dirty-and-scary factor, and by maximizing land
''The main advantage of automated garages,''
said Mr. Denda, who is the research director
for PMRC, which is based in McLean, Va., ''is
that they can be built on sites that are too
small or irregular for the construction of conventional
Of course, the cost of construction and operation
also figure in heavily to a developer's decision
to build an automated garage.
IN Baltimore, Ashbourne Properties is considering
Mr. Haag's Robotic Parking system for a proposed
three-building apartment complex that has street
access only 60 feet wide. ''It is the only way
we could provide on-site parking -- and we are
happy to have the option,'' said Ashbourne's
president, Crispin Etherington.
''The price we have been quoted is $22,000
per space, when conventional parking costs about
$15,000 per space. We are studying the economics
of our project, and the Baltimore market before
deciding which way to go.''
Another developer, David Barry of the Applied
Companies in Jersey City, said his company recently
decided against automated parking for a 12-story
apartment structure going up in that city based
on cost, and also the general reluctance of
lenders to underwrite ''something so new, and
Mr. Haag also noted that being on the cutting
edge can cause problems for conservative lenders.
In his view, the ongoing tests of the structural
strength and reliability of the Hoboken garage
being done to satisfy the construction bonding
company are ''really overdoing it.''
But as developers in many metropolitan areas
find themselves scrapping over sites they would
have considered unbuildable even a year or two
ago, Mr. Denda said, automatic parking garage
proposals are increasingly coming into play
-- and familiarity with the issues they raise
The four-level automatic garage in Washington,
beneath the Summit Grand Parc, occupies a space
measuring 60 by 106 feet -- smaller than many
suburban yards. It is 32 feet floor-to-ceiling
-- shorter than many power poles.
The Hoboken garage is situated in the middle
of a block on a narrow street with metered spaces
on both sides and is built on land that required
considerable environmental cleanup.
Mr. Haag said that if a ramped garage could
even have been built on the Hoboken site --
which is questionable in his view -- it would
have provided only 95 spaces, compared with
324, and construction costs would have run close
to $30,000 per space, compared with $20,000.
Precisely what the Hoboken garage cost, and
how long it took to build, remain touchy issues
in the city -- with the mayor having recently
abolished the parking authority after an investigation
into how it handled the project, and Mr. Haag's
Florida-based company, Robotic Parking Inc.,
and Belcor -- the company that acted as general
contractor -- still locked in legal battle over
which one was responsible for construction issues
that caused delays.
But Mr. Denda from the parking research company
said none of that was particularly surprising.
''That's the construction industry,'' he shrugged,
''and in Hoboken, the municipality was involved,
which only adds to the complications.''
Seymour Gage, a veteran parking garage engineer
from Manhattan, said he finds it difficult to
believe one of the new fully automated garages
will ever be built in New York.
Mr. Gage, 83, designed two automated garages
in the 1950's that are still working today --
as is he. The Showbiz Parking structure in the
Manhattan theater district, off Eighth Avenue,
between 45th and 46th Streets, was built in
1957, Mr. Gage said, using an elevator-on-wheels
system devised by an Iowa inventor, Virgil Bowser,
and Mr. Gage's engineering know-how. Like other
mechanized garages of the era, it requires a
staff -- 8 to 10 people during peak hours --
with valets stationed on each floor.
The new robotic computerized garages are ''a
totally different animal'' from that one, Mr.
Gage said. He is currently working as a consultant
on construction of a fully automatic garage
in Moscow, ''which is becoming a hotbed of parking,''
he said, with hundreds of buildings going up,
all with automatic parking structures beneath.
''Other companies are building in Beijing,''
Mr. Gage said, ''and in Europe, right now a
company called Klaus is putting up about 30
-- very similar to the one in Hoboken.''
''We Americans,'' he added, ''are way behind
on this, absolutely.''
The additional cost of constructing an automated
garage is one of the reasons for that, Mr. Gage
said. ''There is no question that the fully
automatic garage is more expensive to build
-- maybe 50 to 75 percent more for a small one,
60 spaces or less,'' he said.
On the other hand, Mr. Gage said he was recently
asked to consult on a proposal for building
a large underground automated garage being contemplated
in Brooklyn. In that case, he said, a robotic
garage would be cheaper -- by 20 percent.
''The main reason is it would be underground,''
he said. ''That is more costly in general. But
below ground, automated parking beats self-parking,
because of savings on construction. You don't
have to go as deep, or as horizontally.''
AN industry group formed two years ago in Los
Angeles -- the Automated and Mechanical Parking
Association -- said the $20,000-per-space cost
of an automated garage is a ''disadvantage''
planners have to consider. On the other hand,
Mr. Haag insists that if the cost of land is
figured in, an automated garage for 60 cars
or more is always less expensive to build than
one with the same capacity with ramps.
''Also, when comparing costs, many times it
is forgotten,'' he said, ''that our price includes
a closed facade, a sprinkler system and a valet
parking service.'' Automatic garages do not
require a ventilation system, he pointed out,
since the car engine is never running while
the car is inside, and no exhaust fumes are
generated. No pedestrian elevators, fire doors
or emergency staircases are needed either.
An automated system uses more electrical power,
he pointed out -- but is much less labor-intensive.
In Hoboken, there are just two young men running
the show -- Mr. Haag's son, Constantin, and
Filipe Sousa, who oversees the computer system,
watching blinking lights on his screen track
the movement of cars through the garage, and
receiving messages when any motor reaches one
million revolutions and needs a maintenance
''It's really the garage doing all the work,''
Mr. Sousa said with a laugh. ''We're just along
for the ride.