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Robotic lot could be risky for Berkeley

By Matthew Artz
Friday October 04, 2002

Mayor Shirley Dean’s proposal to replace the earthquake-prone Center Street garage with a new state-of-the-art automated one has raised some eyebrows here – and in Hoboken, N.J. 

In 1999 the New York City suburb was the first U.S. city to build a garage that uses computerized lifts to park cars and can pack in twice as many cars as a conventional garage. 

Today – $4 million over-budget and with a police investigation pending – Hoboken is awaiting the garage’s opening next week. 

“It’s been a debacle,” said Tom Jennemann, who has covered the garage issue for the Hoboken Reporter newspaper. “It has gone so badly that at the next City Council meeting, they are going to try to dissolve the parking authority.” 

Robotic parking is common in many European and Asian cities. The system uses machines to move cars. A driver deposits his car at a landing, where a lift moves it to an available parking space. To pick up a car, the owner types in a password, and the machine retrieves the car and sets it back on the landing. 

Dean first advocated robotic parking for the 420-space Center Street garage in 2000, but City Council voted down paying to study the idea. On Tuesday she repeated the idea during a debate with her main election rival, Tom Bates. 

“I said we should consider doing a study. If it doesn’t work we won’t build it,” Dean said. 

Dean said that she was unaware of the difficulties in Hoboken. She noted that the Center Street garage is seismically unsafe and that the $6 million price tag for a new conventional garage is about the cost of a new robotic garage. 

“[A robotic garage] is ideal when there is limited space and the cost of land is exorbitant,” said Peggy Zuignon, executive vice president of Robotic Parking Inc. (RBI), the only U.S.-based robotic parking company and designer of the Hoboken garage. 

Because a robotic garage does not need extra space to accommodate open car doors or tall drivers walking to their cars, it can fit twice as many cars in the same space as a conventional lot, Zuignon explained.  

Also, automated garages are not unsafe for drivers at night and can be designed to fit into the architectural style of the surrounding neighborhood, she said. 

RBI is currently in discussion with other U.S. cities about the possibility of building robotic garages, but Zuignon would not divulge the names of the cities. 

RBI does not accept blame for the Hoboken fiasco. 

“There have been a lot of local issues and Hoboken politics at play” said Zuignon. 

To build the garage, a contractor was employed to build a base structure for RBI to install its machines and computer software. However, according to Zuignon, the contractor, which has since declared bankruptcy, delayed its work by a year and when it finally finished, steel frames were not properly aligned for RBI to install its machines, causing further delays. 

In addition to the delays, Jennemann said RBI has failed to live up to the terms of the deal. “The garage will never function up to it’s promised specification,” he said.  

Hoboken officials were promised the new garage would retrieve cars in less than two minutes, but recent tests put retrieval at two minutes and twelve seconds, Jennemann said. 


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