Parking plan could give cars a lift
By Jon Hilkevitch
Tribune transportation reporter
Published April 4, 2005
The parking shortage may soon get a much-needed lift in car-loving Chicago, where it seems half the drivers are roaming the streets looking for empty spaces.
Ald. Eugene Schulter (47th) said he plans to introduce an ordinance in the City Council this week amending zoning and building-code rules to expand the installation of mechanical car lifts in both public and private parking garages--almost doubling parking capacity, but not construction costs.
The move to provide relief to Chicago's more than 1 million residential parkers comes on the heels of an ambitious campaign that Mayor Richard Daley announced last month to reform the way traffic is managed in the city, beginning with taming congestion downtown.
The parking devices, widely used in Europe and Asia, essentially allow two cars to occupy one space. The first car is driven onto a steel pallet and locked into position. A hydraulic mechanism lifts the pallet off the ground--similar to the automobile lifts used in mechanic garages--allowing the second car to park underneath.
More elaborate models allow independent parking of a row of cars above another row and the ability to remove any car without moving other vehicles.
A moratorium on installing new parking lifts in Chicago was effectively imposed in November 2000 when the permit process was shifted from the city's elevator division to the Zoning Department. Existing vehicle lifts were grandfathered in, but in most cases new devices failed to meet height restrictions and regulations addressing appearance and safety. Since then, only a handful of permits have been approved.
The car-stacking devices that are now the subject of the proposed ordinance require the vehicle owner or a garage attendant to move the bottom car to retrieve the car on the top bunk.
"It's easy to do once you get the hang of it, but every night my husband and I do have that conversation about who will be out first in the morning," said Lynne Drassler, 45, a sales representative whose River West building includes 10 parking lifts in the garage.
Drassler said the arrangement beats parking one of their cars on the street or spending $30,000 or more to acquire a second spot in the garage--should one become available. She said she paid $19,000 for her single parking space in 1999, and "we have $45,000 wrapped up in the spot with the lift." She said the market value of both spaces exceeds $50,000.
"I'd still rather have two regular parking spaces," said Drassler's husband, Tony Daddono, 47, a real estate appraiser who has grown tired of playing musical chairs with the cars over the last two years. Daddono's Mercedes-Benz must always be parked on the bottom because Drassler's Pontiac Grand Prix is too high for the equipment.
Maneuvering the car onto the pallet can be a tight squeeze. Special attention must be paid to avoid scraping the car against the lift apparatus while positioning the vehicle on the pallet.
"I'm more concerned about hitting the machinery while pulling in and out," Daddono said. "You can fix the car, but you damage one of these things and your car is stuck up in the air until it's repaired."
One of the major attractions of the car-lift technology is that it doesn't require as many parking structures, thus reducing the number of cinderblock eyesores that eat up valuable land.
"At every community meeting I attend where someone is asking for a zoning change, parking is always the first question on everybody's mind," Schulter said. "The car lifts are really a reasonable, cost-effective way to increase parking capacity."
Proponents of the idea range from civic groups eager to expand parking downtown and in neighborhoods to housing developers seeking to contain real estate and construction costs.
Cheaper than 2nd spot
It is also less expensive for the owners of condominiums and townhouses to buy a mechanical "stacker," which costs as little as $11,000, than to spend tens of thousands of dollars or more on two parking stalls in a garage.
Daley supports the use of car lifts in one of his pet projects, the proposed commercial-residential development of Block 37 at State and Randolph Streets, aides said.
"Block 37 really provided the needed kick" to get City Hall support of the car-lift proposal, which some aldermen have been pushing for almost three years, said Peter Skosey, vice president of external relations at the Metropolitan Planning Council, a non-profit group of business and civic leaders who have been working with the City Council on the ordinance.
"In an age when it's possible to watch TV, talk on the phone and send an e-mail--all at once, in an elevator--it should be no surprise that the way we park our cars may soon become obsolete," said Mandy Burrell, a spokeswoman for the planning council.
About 100 car-lift devices are in use in Chicago, according to industry officials. The locations include the Fulton Station condos and town homes in the 500 block of West Fulton Street and a condominium high-risebuilding at 1350 N. Lake Shore Drive.
Chicago zoning requires off-street parking spaces to be at least 7 feet high, 8 feet wide and 19 feet long. Among other specifications, the car-lift ordinance calls for minimum vertical clearance of 11 feet.
The earliest car-lift models, built in the 1930s and '40s, were retired because they required too much maintenance and were deemed unsafe. The old lifts, some of which were in garages near City Hall, occasionally dropped vehicles if a cable slipped or broke.
Under the proposed ordinance, the parking devices must be hidden from street view, alleviating concerns about aesthetics. In some cities, parking garages are disguised to look like office buildings, with fake windows or mirrored glass on the exterior walls.
"From a zoning perspective, we saw the stackers as a perfectly rational, reasonable, no-brainer way of potentially decreasing the size of downtown parking garages," Skosey said.
Developers have long found it difficult to rent or sell condos or townhouses without offering parking as an option, but many builders have shied away from the expense of providing two parking spaces per unit. They say the time is right for a car-lift renaissance in Chicago.
"Our builders have installed lifts in the past, and customers are pleased because it saves money," said Christine Ludwiszewski, government relations director for the Attainable Housing Alliance, which represents Chicago-area home builders.
The Chicago ordinance has been a long time coming, said Lee Lazarus, president of APT Parking Technologies in New York, which sells parking machines.
"There are enough developers who have approached us saying automated parking is appropriate for Chicago, but there hasn't been enough push from the city until now," Lazarus said.
Stackers popular elsewhere
A 74-car automated parking structure opened in 2002 at the Summit Grand Parc Apartments, a luxury residential tower in Washington. In Hoboken, N.J., an automated parking garage with a brownstone facade houses more than 300 vehicles.
These more sophisticated versions of the stacker parking machines operate robotically and are intended to blend into the design of new buildings rather than build into existing garages. This type of completely automated operation is not covered in the changes in the zoning and building codes proposed in Chicago.
But in this scenario, the car owner drives onto a platform, parks and exits--similar to turning over the vehicle to a valet, but without the concern that a stranger has access to the car. Once sensors determine that no passengers, or even pets, remain inside, the vehicle is lifted to a storage location.
When returning to the garage, the driver presses a key fob and the vehicle is delivered to a pickup area at street level and rotated on a turntable to face the exit driveway.
The fully automated car-parking machines, although more expensive than the simpler models, save money because they require less of the traditional parking-garage infrastructure such as ramps, elevators and stairways, said Jacqueline Smith, director of special projects at SpaceSaver Parking Co. in Chicago.
"Only minimal lighting is needed for garage personnel, and there is no special ventilation requirement for vehicle emissions because the vehicles are transported with the engines off," Smith said