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Park into the future in Los Angeles!

Thu, 20 Feb 2014 00:00:00 -0800

Parking is the lifeblood that keeps Los Angeles alive and its citizens moving -- and once they finish moving, they must find a place to stop. We define our relationships through parking. We memorize a byzantine code of 3R permits, metered parking, street sweeping times, two-hour-parking-8 a.m.-to-8 p.m.-except-Sundays, loading zones, taxi zones, fire lanes, bus lanes. We fight over spaces. We grumble at valets. We mortgage our extravagant parking tickets. We cower in fear from the highest office of the land, that of the parking enforcement division and its squad of jackbooted goons. (Just last week, I joined an entire street side of people in their cars waiting the five minutes until street sweeping ended, lest we receive five-figure tickets or worse, lose our hard-fought spots.) Half the smog that hangs over the Basin, scientists posit, is from people circling Melrose looking for a spot in front of Groundlings.

Is it any wonder, then, that innovations in parking arise from the one place in the world where you can't find parking?

West Hollywood -- a notoriously difficult place to park, it must be said -- will be getting a futuristic, entirely automated parking garage that will whisk your car on sleds down packed corridors. You'll start by pulling into a garage foyer, where you'll be immediately asked to leave. Then a yellow, low-slung sled moves down and lifts your car up like tow-truck skids. It moves onto a heavy-duty shuttle that moves down a corridor filled with cars -- it can even go directly to the end and up some floors in the three-story structure. The sled pushes your car off the shuttle and into a space, keeping in mind your vehicle dimensions and, therefore, just how far forward to push. When you want your car back, you insert your ticket into the machine outside the garage, and the skids grab your car, move it onto the shuttle and bring it to the garage. As far as you're concerned, and if everything goes well, it should operate by magic.

It's like a giant Hot Wheels carrying case. Except with those, you still had to put the cars in yourself.

The structure, built by Unitronics (to the tune of $2.6 million, for the system itself) and next to West Hollywood's City Hall, can fit 200 cars. Passersby on Sweetzer Avenue will be able to watch the robot garage in action through four giant windows. A car can be retrieved in around three minutes, on average, with trundling through a parking garage but with less contempt toward your fellow man. This is the same as the other automated garages in Southern California.

Wait, there's more robots? Are they multiplying already?

Yes -- there are two more garages, both of which came before this West Hollywood structure. UCLA built the first one in Santa Monica; it can hold 250 cars within its six stories and uses two giant 8,000-pound cranes to move cars, which it does with varying reliability. "It breaks down sometimes," said a UCLA nurse, whose car had been held up a few times by malfunctions, "but when it's working, it's really great." There's also the fear of the 4-ton cranes crashing into each other, but their programming is constantly being tweaked.

A year later, Lotus Garden Apartments in Chinatown introduced the second garage: The apartments are built on a hill, so it's far more efficient for drivers to pull into a spot and watch as their car is gracefully whisked away upwards into a sliding puzzle of lifts. The 17-stall garage cost $18.5 million to build; when completed in August of 2015, West Hollywood's will cost $16 million.

If you think it seems expensive, take heart: It is. But automated parking garages allow for more cars to be crammed in a smaller area -- key considerations in all three Los Angeles locations. Lotus Garden's garage cost averages out to $17,000 per stall, which Curbed LA claims is "not much more or less than a typical parking spot in an apartment building."

No humans are allowed to enter the vehicle area itself, which is a boon in this case: No walking across desolate garages like the opening to an action movie, no nearly getting creamed by hooligans around the corner. Enterprising Woodward and Bernsteins will need to find a new place to meet their informants. And there's no more driving endlessly up gray concrete ramps, turning the mind to ennui and then frustration, frustration to rage searching for a parking space -- in Los Angeles, convenience in driving is a luxury seemingly enjoyed by few.

By Blake Z. Rong