Menlo Park looks at robotic garages | March 14, 2012 | Almanac | Almanac Online |


News - March 14, 2012

Menlo Park looks at robotic garages

• Transportation Commission considers how to fit more cars in less space.

by Sandy Brundage

Flying cars are still a daydream, but garages that can park your earthbound car for you are not, and one company wants to bring that futuristic vision to Menlo Park.

The Transportation Commission on Wednesday, March 14, will listen to a presentation by Unitronics, a company that specializes in automated parking.

Instead of relying on humans to park their cars, an automated garage uses computers to move the cars into slots via lifts, conveyors, and moving pallets. By placing the vehicles almost bumper to bumper, and eliminating the need for ramps or driving lanes, the system can pack in almost three times as many cars as a traditional garage.

Frank DeFoe, regional vice president for Unitronics, said the company received a $2.6 million contract last year to build and maintain a 200-space system for the city of West Hollywood on a 150-foot by 80-foot lot. He estimated the cost of an automated stall at around $25,000, compared to about $40,000 for a conventional parking space.

For a 400-space garage in Menlo Park, the ongoing costs of operating the system are lower than for a traditional garage because of minimal ventilation and lighting needs, and reduced insurance, according to Mr. DeFoe.

Robots aren't perfect, but he described Unitronics systems as 99.6 percent error free on average. In 2008 the company took over an automated garage in Hoboken, New Jersey, after the city had a contract dispute with the previous operator, whose glitches dropped cars and, at one time, trapped vehicles inside the garage for 26 hours. Mr. DeFoe said that Unitronics overhauled the software and mechanics after it took over.

Transportation commissioner Ray Mueller said he's looking forward to the presentation. "New automated parking structure technology is touted as an innovative way to preserve, protect, and reclaim open space for community gathering areas and parks in urban environments," he said in an email. "Obviously, it can also be used to support an increase in density in areas where the parking supply, and space for a traditional garage, is otherwise limited."

He added that whether such a system suits Menlo Park depends on many factors. "Determining whether automated parking structure technology is right for Menlo Park should include community feedback as to proposed garage locations, and a careful examination of other factors, including garage installation fees, minimum parking supply implementation, maintenance costs, driver parking fees, parking wait time, vehicle delivery time, and aesthetics."

Parking, as demonstrated by the public hearings on the downtown/El Camino Real specific plan, remains a hot button issue for the city: Does Menlo Park need parking garages? If so, where and who will foot the bill? Some think the automated system is worth considering.

Nancy Couperus of the Menlo Park Downtown Alliance, an association of downtown business and property owners, said that while the group has taken no formal position, its members want to learn more since an automated garage may fit more vehicles into a smaller space than traditional structures, and could be less expensive, depending on ongoing maintenance costs.

"If in the future it's necessary to build a parking structure in the downtown area, we think that an automated structure ought to be considered," she said.

The Transportation Commission meeting starts at 7 p.m. in the council chambers at the Civic Center at 701 Laurel St.