As Menlo Park explores ideas for the El Camino Real/Downtown Specific Plan, parking continues to be a hot-button issue.
Wednesday night, the Menlo Park Transportation Commission decided to entertain an ultra-modern solution to the problem in the form of "robotic parking garages."
If that sounds like something out of an episode of Futurama, laugh not - the concept is very real, and already being tried out in a handful of cities across the country.
On Wednesday night, the Transportation Commission, of its own volition, invited Frank Defoe of the company Unitronics - which has already built and currently runs robotic parking garages in other states - to give a presentation with a proposal for such a futuristic garage for downtown Menlo Park.
Transportation commissioners like Ray Mueller and Chairperson Penelope Huang said they found the presentation quite interesting.
"I appreciated learning about the new technology," Mueller said.
"I thought the presentation was very professional and to-the-point," said Huang. "It was very interesting to me."
What is a robotic parking garage?
Unitronics touts its robotic parking garages as both a more efficient use of space than traditional garages, and a significant cost savings for cash-strapped cities.
Reportedly, the benefits of robotic parking garages are that they cost as much as 25 percent less to build and maintain as traditional garages - to the tune of $25,000 per parking space, versus $40,000 - and that, because extra room doesn't need to be built in for ramps or driving lanes, they can hold two to three times as many cars, as well.
How do they work? Rather than humans parking the cars, a sophisticated system of computers, lifts, moving pallets and conveyors mechanically deposit cars into slots. The cars can be placed extremely close together because the robots can lift the cars up and out of their spaces to retrieve them.
Unitronics' website also touts the garages as "green" and more cost-effective because, since humans will not be walking around the garages to get to and from their cars, the structures can feature reduced lighting and ventilation, and the cars will give off less gas emissions.
Defoe said in an on-air interview with ABC7 recently that the garages also have built-in safety features such as censors that can detect whether there is a person or animal in a vehicle and therefore stop immediately, and censors that prevent vehicles from hitting each other. The system is also optimized with different-sized spaces for different vehicles, and censors measure the height, width and weight of a car to know which space the car will best fit in.
When you want your car back, it's as easy as sending a text message to the garage so the system will begin retrieving your car for you while you make your way there.
To see the ABC7 report on Unitronics' robotic garages, see the video included with this article.
Is a robotic parking garage right for Menlo Park's downtown?
Mueller said, though the technology appears attractive, he has concerns that it is still a very new technology that has not been widely put to the test in other cities.
"Speaking as an individual, I personally would like to review much more information before endorsing such a project," he said. "Buying an automated parking structure is essentially buying an expensive product - the robots, and constructing of the structure for them to work and store the cars in. So there are a multitude of questions to ask regarding maintenance, performance, operation, and liability."
"Clearly, [Unitronics] knows what they're doing. But then again, they are a vendor trying to sell a product," Huang said. "But, I have to give them some credit - they did their research, and the proposal they made for Menlo Park does appear similar to the structure they are building in West Hollywood."
Is a robotic parking garage in Menlo Park's future?
Huang cautions, Unitronics' presentation at the Transportation Commission's Wednesday night meeting was merely the entertaining of an idea to learn about various possible options for Menlo Park. In other words, the City Council, nor any other City entity, did not direct the commission to invite Unitronics to the meeting.
"It was just to introduce a concept to the residents of Menlo Park," she explained.
Also, the Transportation Commission itself does not have the authority to greenlight such a project, and spend the City's money on it.
Huang said, many people found the presentation interesting, and therefore, the idea will continue to be explored, but if the City wishes to get more serious about the idea of a robotic parking garage in downtown Menlo Park, the commission would have to make such a recommendation to the City Council, which would in turn have to approve it, in order for it to happen.
Huang said, in order for the project to see the light of day, a study by City staff would have to be conducted, and the City would most likely want to explore competitive bids from other companies.
Tell us in the comments - what do you think of the concept of robotic parking garages? Do you think this is a good idea for downtown Menlo Park?