Though automated parking structures are not exactly new, San Fernando Valley residential development The Savannahs is the first in Southern California to boast such a facility. The project was the brainchild of LA real estate developer Christopher Alan, who partnered with Dasher Lawless (his firm), Omron Automation & Safety, Design Systems Inc., SEW Eurodrive, ConXtech, and others to create Auto Parkit, the only automated parking company in the nation competitive with traditional parking. Alan spoke to TPR about his scalable, operator-free, fully-automated, high-density parking system and its potential to reduce emissions, increase safety, and liberate development in LA.
“There’s $1 billion worth of parking business in Hollywood alone. And that’s just one place—you’ve got Burbank, Santa Monica, Los Angeles, San Diego...” -Christopher Alan
Christopher, the challenge of smart urban in-fill development is most often in finding new ways to provide sufficient parking. What specific real estate challenge inspired you, the founder and president of Los Angeles based Dasher Lawless, a leader in retail, commercial, and residential development, to become a parking maven and the CEO of Auto Parkit?
Christopher Alan: I bought some years ago what I think is one of the best possible properties in all of Los Angeles—an 11,000 square foot site directly across from the main gate at Warner Brothers. The zoning for the media district there is 1.1 to 1 unless you get entitlements for additional density, which I did. I designed a project that I knew the city would love and that accomplished the intent and goals of the media district specific plan.
The City approved the project with approximately a 4 to 1 floor-area ratio. They gave me all this density, but the problem was I couldn’t park it. Code required 220 cars, which was not possible for me to do on the footprint. So I went to City Council and they diminished the parking requirement to meet project demand instead of zoning code which was only 113 cars. But with a footprint of only 11,000 square feet it would have taken 10.5 levels of subterranean parking to get the 113 cars. We’d have been below the water table, and it would have been $100,000 per stall. It would never have penciled out.
We looked at buying adjacent properties around there, but Warner Brothers owns almost everything. The land was $500 – 1000 per square foot. If you factor in 350 square feet per stall on average, you can’t spend that kind of money to build a parking lot for a building. It never works in the pro forma.
So my only opportunity was to look at automated parking.
When you purchased the property, was parking priced into the sale price?
Christopher Alan: There was no expectation of parking because there was no entitlement; it was 1.1 to 1. Obviously, as a developer, value add is what I do so it was my problem to solve.
So to satisfy my parking requirement and get my entitlements I went ahead and got a generic automated parking system approved in the City of Burbank. I then went around the world trying to find a parking company for the project. I flew all the way to New Zealand to see a system. I had two different companies offer me ownership in their company if I would use their technology in my building because I was able to get automated parking approved, which they had been unable to do.
I ended up signing a deal with a company out of New Zealand. After about eight months back and forth, it was clear that they could not figure out how to make it work within the structural column grid that I had; they had no idea how to get through the fire department; what the seismic codes were going to require structurally; how to support the system long term. I then started working with a company out of Utah for a while, but it became clear that neither one could provide me with what I needed for building approvals or long-term operation and support of the building.
So, not being that smart a man myself, I thought, “How hard can it be?” I’ll do it myself. So I started my own automated parking company. And of course it’s much harder than you would think, which is why there’s only a handful of companies doing it. But, three years later with the right partnerships we had the technology developed.
The thing that put us in the position to actually be able to build systems was the way we approached the business model. We approached it from the real estate developer’s point of view. Automated storage retrieval systems have been around for 60 or 70 years—so if you adapt that to storing vehicles, which we have been able to do, you have a system. But you immediately come up with another problem: how do you support it long-term? When a developer builds a building, they’re not buying it and getting a new one in two years. They have a mortgage payment on that thing for 20 to 30 years. Then they refinance it to pull money out every so many years, and then they have another 20-year mortgage payment. But the minute the tenants can’t park, they stop paying rent, and the developer can’t pay the mortgage.
The automated companies that are out there have all struggled to become profitable because they have a bunch of engineers in a room trying to keep up with technology because everything is proprietary. If they sold a system eight years ago, and if a component goes bad, and if the encoders have different technology now, how do you keep up with it? You can’t plug a floppy disk into your iphone, right? So these companies have dozens of engineers that they’re paying salaries to continue to debug and reengineer. You can’t build enough systems to support that ongoing expense, ever.
I looked at it and said, “OK, this isn’t sustainable; you don’t need a bunch of engineers to reinvent the wheel when there are companies who do automation every day.” So I partnered with Omron Automation and Safety. They’re the leader in automation and safety technologies in the world. They have distributorships in almost every major city across the globe. They did $7.5 billion last year and they’ve been doing automation in the auto industry for 70 years.
I took their industrial technology—the automated parking technology that they’ve been using in the assembly lines—along with my building and development expertise for structural column grids, for ingress and egress, for queuing requirements for the department of transportation, etc., and I bundled that up and put in a new process patent. I patented industrial technology for a commercial application, and we formed Auto Parkit.
By having Omron as my partner along with SEW Eurodrive as our drives partner—they’re one of the largest electric drive suppliers in the world—and DSI—who engineered and built a number of the automated assembly and parking systems for Chrysler and the other car manufacturers—we now have commercial technology that allows us to build automated parking systems anywhere in the world.
Why did these global engineering / technology firms choose you as their partner?
Christopher Alan: Ultimately that’s the billion-dollar question.
I think everyone we met with knew the potential market, but nobody understood how to get into it. Even the automated parking companies themselves have been unable to break the market. They keep looking at it from a technology standpoint and want to hand it to you like an iphone. The problem is that you can make 100 million iphones because they’re all the same, but each parking structure is different. Even if you take the same parameters of the site, the uses are different. You might have a retail user, an office user, a residential user, so your throughput or peak-hour demand is going to be different.
And then you factor in ingress and egress for each building, some you can do curb cuts and some you can’t. Some have alleys; some don’t. The requirements for drive aisles are different in different municipalities. Fire codes are different; seismic codes are different. In South Florida you have to design for uplift, here you have to engineer for seismic and at some point you realize this business is substantially more complicated. Nobody has had that perspective.
I went to Omron along with the couple other big automators and pitched what we were doing, talking about the size of the market. There’s $1 billion worth of parking business in Hollywood alone. And that’s just one place—you’ve got Burbank, Santa Monica, Los Angeles, San Diego, the whole Southern California region, the whole state, then you’ve got Chicago, New York, then London, Madrid, and Milan, and then you realize that this is a trillion-dollar market.
Auto Parkit and Omron spent millions of dollars developing the system. Why was it so capital intensive?
Christopher Alan: You have to develop the way the system is going to work.
As an example, our system has predictive failure. The one thing you don’t want to have is for the system to shut down leaving people unable to retrieve their cars. So we developed a way to predict the failure of a component before it fails. We only use electric drives so there are no hydraulics. When an electric motor starts up, it uses a certain amount of amperage, and then it goes down to its running amperage. Our software can set the parameters for electricity consumption. When it goes outside of those parameters, it kicks out a maintenance report that says, “This motor is pulling this amount of amperage for this period of time.” From that we can deduce if the bearings are going bad on the drive, in which case we know we need to replace it before it fails. If the report says, when it uses stall 112, it’s drawing more amperage, but when it uses 113, 114, 115 it does not, then we know that the chains or rollers are going bad, and the motor is requiring more torque to pull the pallet out. So we can target the maintenance and replace those components before they fail.
When you get into that type of software and engineering, it’s like flying to Mars—engineers can figure it out, but it takes a lot of man-hours and people to do it. So you need to set the design parameters for the system so that developers can be sure that this is an investment and not a bet. And that takes money.
Elaborate on your partners’ experience with automated parking. What’s the challenge?
Christopher Alan: Omron has been doing automated retrieval systems for more than seventy years so they knew it could be done. DSI had been approached by several parking companies, as had ConXtech, but none of them could answer the questions, explain how the business model would be sustained, or explain how 25 years from now you could guarantee that the system would still be supported.
The company that I put together solves all of those problems and that was a big thing for them. If you go to our website, AutoParkit.com, you can see an interview with Gregg Holst, the president and CEO of Omron. He talks about how big the market is and that it’s a new market for Omron, one that they’re extremely excited about, because this allows them to deploy all of their safety and sensor technologies, including PLCs, to a brand new market.
Please elaborate on one of Dasher Lawless’ most notable development projects because it’s the pilot program for automated parking for the City of LA.
Christopher Alan: My partners and I bought a piece of property in Sherman Oaks in 2005 that we were going to build four units on. The zoning was R3 and would have allowed me to build eight, but I could only build four because that’s all I could park. And the way that development works is that if you can’t park it, you can’t build it. Period. It doesn’t matter if by right you can build 100 units—if you can only park 50 you can only build 50.
We took this site that is 51 feet wide and 110 feet deep, which by the time you deal with set backs and such, the actual building envelope is 35 feet wide by 90 feet long. We wanted to illustrate what automated parking could do in the smallest possible footprint. But we also wanted to prove that you don’t have to have trained industrial knowledge to use this system—everyday people, tenants, could use this system, like an ATM.
We built a four-story system, one level below grade and three levels above grade, and built eight units. We got 100 percent more units in an envelope that is 35 feet by 90 feet.
When we were designing that system, I worked closely with the communities and political powers. Bud Ovrom, General Manager of the City of LA Department of Building and Safety, I knew, was specifically interested in automated parking. We have big planning concerns in the city because parking structures can be massive, dirty, and noisy problems to deal with in order to do good planning. I went to Bud and said, “Listen, I want to do this project, you guys don’t have any codes, we should work together on this and do a pilot program.” And it turned out they were looking for a pilot program for automated parking, to sit down with someone who was doing it, to figure out how it would actually work and be implemented. So we worked with Bud and the individual departments on the parameters for new codes for the City of Los Angeles, and now they have a planning checklist for automated parking. The project is called The Savannahs, the Grand Opening was in late February 2013 and the units are leased.
The Savannahs is not, as you have described, an ordinary in-fill project. Are you pleased with Auto Parkit’s advantages and it’s integration into the development?
Christopher Alan: Yes. The system is performing as designed, which is key. The interesting thing, though, is that six of the eight units have single women, and the reason that they like it is because of the safety associated with the system. They never have to go down into a parking structure and worry about who’s in there. When the garage door opens there are sensors in the load bay, and the door will not open if someone is in there. When the door opens, security is already cleared, and you can pull in. 42 percent of sexual assaults that are committed by someone you don’t know—meaning not by family or acquaintances—occur in parking structures. 18 percent of insurance claims happen in parking structures, but not in Auto Parkit systems because there is no one in the system.
The way that it works is, you enter a load bay as you would a one-and-a-half-car garage, and you park your car. Then when you exit the load bay the system lifts up your car and rotates it 180 degrees so that you never have to reverse. When you pull into the system you pull forward, when you pull out you pull forward. That diminishes your queuing requirements, time for ingress and egress, all the things that developers look at to work with the Department of Transportation and Bureau of Engineering.
What kind of efficiencies do you get with Auto Parkit?
Christopher Alan: So if you have a piece of property where you can park 100 cars, I can park 200. I do that by the diminishment of the drive aisles, turning radiuses, etc., but also volumetrically. Instead of having 10 to 11-foot floor-to-floors like you would in a traditional structure because of the concrete structure and the HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning), I can pull them down as low as 6 foot 6 inches. Most cars are less than 5 feet tall, so I don’t need the additional space, all I need to do is park the car. When you pull into the loading bay, I measure the car so when it goes into the system, I can put a compact car on a compact level and an oversized on an oversized level. Almost all parking is subterranean now in LA development. If you have to go 60 feet to get your envelope to do traditional parking, I can do it in 35 feet. I can do three levels of automated in two levels of traditional parking.
What else have you learned from your now-built LA City pilot project?
Christopher Alan: You learn more things that you don’t think of. For example, nuances in the system itself. You learn that not everyone will get out of a car at the same time, so a mom might walk out before her child does, so you have to make sure that you’re motion-sensing the child or if you’re doing visual like us, that you have proper vision sensors, etc.
But the real learning curve is with the City of Los Angeles. Like Bud had mentioned at the grand opening, they are very comfortable in their box, and they don’t like to step out of it. So helping them step out of that box (or at least expand it) and how to go about doing that was probably the real education.
If the Los Angeles pilot is Auto Parkit 1.1, what might 2.0 include?
Christopher Alan: Our big challenge now is value engineering. We’re the only automated parking company out there that’s competitive with traditional parking; that’s not good enough for us. We want to be less expensive than traditional parking.
What new development projects are you working on with Auto Parkit?
Christopher Alan: We’re working on a project in Hollywood for the studios, we of course have Piazza Oliva, we also have a project in Culver City and we’re on the verge of signing another deal in Hollywood Hills as well. But in addition we’re probably involved right now in another dozen or so right here in LA.
Let me segue to the types of development projects that are using your technology. Give our readers a sense of the scope and nature of the development work you’re involved in.
Christopher Alan: We’re involved in projects from mixed-use, to residential towers, to 35-million-dollar mansions where the owner has a car collection and wants to park 40 cars. We have corporate opportunities; we’re working on a handful of projects with some of the national construction firms, for example. The largest project we’re currently involved in is 5600 stalls.
They are coming to you as a developer, not just because of parking?
Christopher Alan: It’s becoming further and further intertwined, because in order to plan large developments and get through the planning process, know all the departments, know what you need to actually facilitate a project and get it designed and finished, there’s a lot to know, and experience is the best teacher. So to know how to plan it from the beginning, how to blend the uses, what the parking and environmental requirements are going to be, and to be able to get those credits and points toward diminishing energy consumption, etc., there aren’t a lot of people who have the perspective that we do here at Dasher Lawless and Auto Parkit.
What has been the process to educate potential clients and design and construction professionals regarding Auto Parkit’s system advantages?
Christopher Alan: Having architects involved helps a lot. Architects know building already, and they’re always looking for problem solving. So you have this new technology that’s been floating out there for ten years, and no one’s really been able to do it, and now you have Auto Parkit that’s finally able to cross that threshold. Being able to educate them and help them space-plan—you’re not teaching them necessarily the way that you convey things, but the space planning and how it can help and how you can work ingress and egress. It’s a pretty quick path with architects. As we teach more and more of them, they disseminate that to their clients and other business professionals. So it should grow pretty quickly. The 30-40 architects that we’re working with now have a pretty good handle on how it works, how it fits, and the best way to design it.
What is motivating the use of Auto Parkit in new developments?
Christopher Alan: It’s profit. People are in business to make a profit. If you have a site that’s not profitable because you can’t get the density you need because you can’t park it, you need a solution. And if Auto Parkit can provide the parking required which allows you to build it you’re going to use Auto Parkit. Auto Parkit is the only automated parking company that is competitive with traditional parking. It’s the only company that has a sustainable model for the developer, and I’m not talking about the green aspect, though there are huge benefits from that standpoint as well. I’m talking about the developer’s knowledge that 15-20 years down the line, the parking system will still work because the company will still be around, the technology is ladder logic, backward-looking, it won’t become obsolete, they won’t be iterated out of supporting their system when that day’s technology is gone. We are the only company that can give them that assurance with the track record to back it up.
Christopher, when we get together a year from now, what will we be talking about?
Christopher Alan: Hopefully going global.