A Deep Dive into the Automated Parking System Proposed by Royal Vlahakis
Above: An image from the site plan proposal for the Royal Vlahakis project, showing parking entrance/exit on Abbot Road at the far right (west side).
If you thought a parking garage could never be conceived of as a tourist destination, think again. Some proponents of the proposed Royal Vlahakis “Park Place” project have suggested that its automated parking garage could attract people from out of town just to park.
The area around the proposed redevelopment – which would rise to 169 feet at the current site of Dublin Square – doesn't have nearly enough conventional parking space for what’s being proposed: a 12-plex movie theater, about 500 new apartments (including 82 condos), 20,000-square-feet of office space, plus new retail and restaurant space, all just north of Peoples Church.
So, developers Royal Apartments and Vlahakis Development have been pitching the idea of installing an automated parking system, which allows far more cars to be parked in a garage than if drivers park their own cars. They want to build automated parking for about 600 vehicles.
The parking would be privately-owned, so any direct financial risk of this innovative system would not be borne by the public. But the proposal involves a big public-private partnership, including the use of several parcels of public land, so there is public interest in whether this kind of parking makes economic and practical sense for this project.
In his public presentations, co-developer Paul Vlahakis has repeatedly referred to the fully automated parking solution called U-Tron, made by New Jersey-based Unitronics, as his preferred design. He has also referred to the West Hollywood municipal automated parking system as an example of what he wants to install at his East Lansing project.
The result has been a lot of questions from ELi readers about the system and how users would interact with it. ELi reached out to Unitronics and the parking manager for the City of West Hollywood to provide you with some answers.
How a Car Is Parked via U-Tron:
To better understand how the process of parking a car using the proposed system would work, I interviewed Orit Buzin, Marketing Manager for U-Tron Automated Parking System. The first thing I asked him about was how someone parks a car using U-Tron.
Buzin explained that a driver will pull up to one of the bays (like that pictured below) and stop at a marked sign. A door then opens, and the driver pulls the car into the bay where the car is measured by sensors and guided to the correct position through instructions provided on a screen in front of the driver.
After moving the car into the correct position, the driver receives an on-screen approval indicating that the car is ready to be parked. The driver then exits the car and locks it.
The next step, moving the vehicle into a parking spot, is initiated by the driver using the U-Tron mobile app (which the driver would have to set up on a phone in advance) or a kiosk payment machine. At the machine, the driver would swipe a card or pull a pay ticket.
When the parking request made via the app or kiosk is complete, the bay door closes, and sensors sweep the room to make sure that there is no movement outside the car. That’s to ensure safety to humans.
At this point, the driver can leave. A machine shuttle system retrieves the car from the bay and stores it in a suitable place in the driverless garage, according to the car’s dimensions. The video below takes you inside the heart of the system to see how a car is moved by the machines into a parking spot.
How a Driver Retrieves a Car:
Imagine you just saw a movie at the Park Place theater, and you are walking back to the parking structure. Now what?
The first thing you will need to do in order to retrieve your car is to pull up the U-Tron app on your phone or go to the kiosk to pay for the time you used. As soon as you pay for your time, the retrieval process begins.
The kiosk or app screen will tell you how many other people are waiting in front of you and from what room the system is retrieving your car, giving you a rough estimate on wait time. The system will deliver your car to one of the bays that you used to initially park your car, and the kiosk or app screen will tell you which bay to go to. (The bays are located near the kiosks in most systems.) After the system tells you what bay your car is in and the door opens revealing your car, all you have to do is get in and drive out, as you’ve already paid.
Specific Questions from ELi Readers:
After learning how this system works, I asked the U-Tron representative more specific questions from East Lansing Info (ELi) readers.
What happens with the snow and salt that melts off cars in the winter?
Orit Buzin explained that there are similar systems to the one proposed already built and in use in colder climates along the East Coast, the oldest dating back to 2007. He said that the snow and ice from a car will melt where the car is parked and then go down floor drains. During winter, systems do need to be cleaned more often because of salt, however, they are designed to be resistant to the damage that salt can cause.
How would I get groceries to my apartment?
Your car would need to be unloaded in the bay and the groceries would need to be walked from the parking structure to your apartment, similar to what happens when you use a self-park garage. What if you can't carry all your groceries in one trip? That depends on the ultimate design of the project. If there’s a place designed for you to leave a car parked temporarily while you run groceries upstairs, you would use that approach. Otherwise, you would have to park, retrieve, and park again.
Where will cars line up while they are waiting to park?
Every system is designed differently, depending on the site. In the proposal for Royal Vlahakis’ Park Place, cars line up in interior ramps.
What happens if someone leaves their car running by accident?
It will continue to run. According to Buzin, the system is not designed to prevent human errors like that.
How does exhaust for the system work?
The garage has a ventilation system that sucks the air out and pumps it outside, and fans that move air into the system. The emission standards are similar to traditional parking structures.
The ventilation requirements for an automated parking garage are generally different than for a conventional parking garage. Once the vehicle is in the bay, the engine is supposed to be turned off in automated parking. Since the vehicle does not emit exhaust all through the interior, according to U-Tron, automated parking structures are only required to have two air changes per hour compared to a conventional system that requires anywhere from eight to ten.
According to the company’s representative, U-Tron systems follow the National Fire Protection Association NFPA 88A Standard on Automated Parking Structures. Along with the decreased air changes, the guidelines call for less lighting than traditional garages because humans are not operating vehicles deep inside of it. The systems still have to be accessible to fire crews.
What Has Been the Experience in West Hollywood?
When Paul Vlahakis, developer for the East Lansing proposal, has presented the potential automated parking system, he has often cited the municipal garage of West Hollywood, California, as an example of the type of system he wants to build.
West Hollywood uses a U-Tron system that was made and is serviced by Unitronics. That southern-California city installed the system to help alleviate parking issues at its City Hall building, and the automated garage replaced an existing surface parking lot.
To get a feel for how the new system is working out for them, I interviewed the City of West Hollywood’s Parking Operations Manager, Vince Guarino. I began by asking him about what kinds of complaints or compliments the new system has received.
According to Guarino, the most common complaint is the perceived amount of time it takes to retrieve a vehicle when a driver is ready to leave. He emphasized perceived time, because in a conventional self-park structure, you are walking up to your car then driving down and paying, so you may not consciously think about how long it is all taking you. With an automated parking structure, you are standing there waiting for your car to arrive, so your frame of mind is a little different.
How long does it take to park a car and retrieve a car? Guarino says it usually takes someone about two to three minutes to park a car. Entering the system and parking a car takes less time than retrieving the car. On average, it takes people in West Hollywood five to seven minutes to retrieve cars.
The parking structure in West Hollywood is mostly used by city employees and people who come to City Hall for business. West Hollywood takes special steps during peak hours to mitigate congestion.
During off-peak hours, half the parking bays are used to enter, and half are used to exit. At the beginning of the work day, all the bays are set to be used only as entrances and, when the work day is over, all the bays are used as exits. During peak hours, wait time can be as long as ten minutes.
Guarino says that the only consistent time there are lines to use the West Hollywood structure are during peak hours.
Guarino explained that the system is heavy on mechanical engineering, with all the lifts and pulleys. There are always things that need to be tweaked, and parts are going to wear out. West Hollywood has a maintenance agreement in place with Unitronics, and that company handles all the maintenance.
Guarino was not personally aware of anyone coming to West Hollywood for the sole purpose of parking their car in the automated system, as has suggested might happen in East Lansing.
The new system has freed up a lot of extra space for the City of West Hollywood. The new garage has a smaller footprint than the surface parking lot it replaced, and holds many more spaces. As a result of the space-saving, West Hollywood was able to create an open outdoor space where employees can gather and eat outside.
At the West Hollywood garage, most of the users of the system are city employees, so the education process was largely carried out internally. To help ease the transition for residents, the City publicized information about the new garage. West Hollywood also has one or two employees on site to assist people parking their cars, particularly during the morning. Guarino said that the learning curve is no different than any other parking system.
I asked Guarino, if he could change something about the system, what would it be? He answered that he would find a more effective way to keep customers engaged while they are waiting for their vehicles to be retrieved. West Hollywood has added two televisions near the retrieval area that show cable programming and provide information about what’s going on in the city.
What’s Next in East Lansing?
While the representative from U-Tron could not go into details about the Royal Vlahakis project, he did confirm that they are in what they described as “early planning stages” of designing a system for the would-be developers in East Lansing.
The chief benefit of the system is clear—more parking in a smaller space. However, the concerns about wait times remain. Then there is the separate issue of whether local streets can handle the traffic. In the coming weeks, the proposal and traffic analyses will be considered by the Transportation Commission, Planning Commission, Downtown Development Authority, and finally City Council.
This week, the site plan proposal is not set to be specifically discussed at any meetings. But on Tuesday this week, with Ruth Beier back in town, City Council will revisit a previously-rejected proposal to allow 140-foot-tall (12 story) buildings along Evergreen Avenue (see item 27 on this agenda). City Council will also be voting (after its already in fact happened) to let the developers include in their site plans two publicly-owned properties.
And, on Wednesday of this week, Planning Commission will be considering whether to recommend allowing the 15-story structure proposed by the developers (see item 6-A on this agenda).
Want to learn more about the Royal Vlahakis proposal and public-private deal? See our dedicated reporting page on the proposal.
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