Stack my car, please, my good robot
Pull in off the street. Step out of your car. Let the robots take it from there.
That may become the routine for more drivers looking for a place to park in Boston, where two fully automated garages are in the works at new housing developments.
The Boulevard, a luxury condo building nearing completion on Broad Street downtown, will use a complex system of lifts, conveyors, and stackers to store vehicles in a 35-space underground garage. The 168-space garage at the 40 Rugg Road apartment complex in Allston — where work is just starting — will operate with a similar system.
When it’s time to leave either building, drivers will signal for their car through an app. Within minutes, it will be back at the entryway, pointed toward the street for an easy departure.
“It’d remind you of a vending machine,” said Jay Russo, vice president at The Michaels Organization, which is building the Allston project. “You dial up your number, and out comes the car.”
The technology behind automated garages has existed for years. They are popular in parts of Asia and Europe, New York City, and San Francisco, but the concept has been slower to catch on in Boston.
A few small, high-end condo buildings have partially automated systems that stack or otherwise move cars around. But the two being built now are by far the biggest, and they’ll likely be followed by others.
“We’re working on several more opportunities in the Boston area, some still schematic, some closer to construction,” said Yair Goldberg, executive vice president at U-Tron, a New Jersey-based company that’s building the garage in Allston. “We’ve definitely seen a growth in interest from the Boston area.”
The trend toward automated garages is about saving space and money. With property prices at a premium in Boston, builders are trying to squeeze projects into ever-smaller, odd-shaped, footprints. Traditional garages, with their ramps, elevators, and ventilation shafts, aren’t suited for such complicated layouts, and take up too much space. Automated garages, which can stack cars just inches apart, reduce the square footage needed for parking by half to two-thirds, said Goldberg.
“When you eliminate all the turning radius and space to open doors and ramps and places for people to walk, you get a much more dense parking solution,” he said. “It makes the whole process more efficient.”
U-Tron garages consist of an entryway the size of a two-car garage. Drivers pull in and leave their car, and a system of lifts and turntables then carries it to a space tucked onto a shelf or deck on one of several levels.
The high-tech systems are not necessarily cheaper to build. Most must be custom-designed and can cost anywhere from $20,000 to $100,000 per space, said Art Stadig, managing principal at the Boston office of parking consulting firm Walker Consultants. Most operators build in backup operating systems to prevent failure, and offer 24/7 support, though not on-site staffers.
A big advantage of the system is that it can eliminate the need to excavate for underground parking. Also, automated garages take up less above-ground space, meaning more square footage a developer can devote for housing or offices.
City rules require — and neighbors and residents often demand — parking in most larger residential buildings. But it’s expensive. At 40 Rugg Road — in an area of Allston where the water table is just 8 feet below ground level — squeezing in an above-ground garage without sacrificing a lot of leasable square footage was the difference between the project breaking even and turning a profit, Russo said.
“The parking dictates the project,” he said. “We had to look for a solution to get it in somehow.”
Automated garages have had their share of problems, though. Like all technology, occasional glitches can wreak havoc.
In 2015, problems with the equipment at an automated garage in Miami resulted in cars smashed, furious residents, and huge lawsuits filed against the garage developer. In 2010, a worker died in an accident in an automated garage near Baltimore.
There also are tales of cars falling to their destruction, as well as long waits at peak times.
Those episodes have made developers wary, Stadig said, and slowed adoption of automatic parking in the United States. But as the technology keeps improving, he said, and more people choose to move to cities — while still owning a car — the concept is gaining appeal.
“It’s really a function of what the marketplace demands,” Stadig said. “We’re building more complicated buildings on tighter sites, and I think architects and planners see this as a good solution for parking.”
They work best for residential buildings, Goldberg said, where even busy times of day aren’t as intense as they are at office buildings or shopping malls, meaning it’s less likely that drivers will spend a long time waiting for their cars.
As for residents, well, they’re getting used to the idea of trusting their car to the robots.
At The Boulevard, it has required explaining to would-be buyers, said Ricardo Rodriguez, who is leading sales at the downtown condo building. He pitches the parking garage as one of many on-demand amenities the building features.
“It’s like having a valet, without a valet,” he said.
And Jas Bhogal, who has built automated garages into two small condo buildings he has developed in Boston, said that based on his experience, it won’t take long for drivers to appreciate the convenience.
“It’s really effective,” he said of the parking systems. “You request your car and it’s there in 30 seconds. As more people get used to this, it’ll get even more popular.”