Parking is the demon of urban design. Like a gargoyle on a tower thumbing its nose at passers-by below, California’s inflexible parking requirements seem to mock developers, housing advocates and city officials alike.

“Whatever it is you want to build — affordable housing, shopping centers, hospitals, hotels — you can’t build it, because you can’t park it, ha ha ha!” chants the demon. Is there no sorcerer strong enough to kill the monster of parking codes?

The near-impossibility of meeting present-day parking requirements came to mind recently, when I was watching presentations by graduate students in planning at the UCLA School of Public Affairs. The students were required to propose theoretical projects for an actual site in Beverly Hills, following the zoning rules of that city. Not a single one of the teams could make the parking work; all of them invented pretexts that the city would somehow “waive” or forgive some of the parking, which is not a realistic expectation in Beverly Hills.

All of this is preamble to the subject of automated parking structures. The good news about automated parking is already known in Europeans and some Asian cities. Californians are only now beginning to learn that mechanical parking systems — involving lifts that pick cars up from the ground and hide them underground or in the air — can make otherwise unfeasible building projects work financially. That’s a very big deal. But this technology begs the question: Will solving the parking problems of some buildings actually lead to a worsening of traffic congestion?

Conventional parking structures, as nearly everyone knows, are space consuming because cars need wide turning radii and room for two-way traffic. A well-known urban designer told me that San Francisco was a better city for development than Portland, for example, because the classic “Vara” block of San Francisco – roughly 350 by 250 feet – is ideal for parking structures, while the much smaller block of downtown Portland – about 200 by 200 feet — was too tight for a standard parking structure.

With automated parking, sites with comparatively small “footprints” can now accommodate parking in a much narrower compass. In some cases, the footprint of parking can be as small as 8 feet by 24 feet, or roughly the same size, in square feet, as my living room. While this may sound banal to some, the implications are almost revolutionary for areas like downtown Portland and perhaps our bedeviled site in Beverly Hills. It means, among other things, that some sites with comparatively small “footprints” can now become commercially feasible development locations because they can be “parked.” For a Washington, D.C., demonstration project built in 2002, SpaceSaver Parking Company of Chicago installed a four-level, 74-stall automated parking system in the Summit Grand Parc Apartments, a building with a dainty footprint of only 60 feet by 106 feet.

The economics of automated parking varies on the type of unit. The most economical unit – and the system most common in San Francisco – is a simple, hydraulic ramp that lifts a car six feet above street level, allowing another car to park beneath. These low-end units cost about $12,000 to $15,000 per parking space. (These figures are supplied by Rob Bailey, president and owner of SpaceSaver Parking Systems.) That makes the units a good deal cheaper than the average parking stall, which can cost up to $40,000 to $45,000, a figure that reflects the recent run-up in the cost of construction materials. The most expensive model — a “fully automated,” key-card operated system that allows car owners to retrieve their vehicles immediately — costs about $30,000 to $35,000 per stall. In other words, it is not cheap, but it is comparable to the cost of building a garage. And any premium that a developer might pay for an automated system, of course, may be justifiable if an unfeasible project suddenly becomes workable.

Bailey says he has “five or six” systems currently in place in San Francisco, and a 12-level system — possibly the largest of its kind yet built in California — is scheduled for installation this month at a new luxury building at 418 Jesse Street. In Bailey’s view, on-site parking is a sine qua non for high-end multi-family buildings.

“For well-off people to move downtown, you’ve got to be able to give them parking, because they are not going to get rid of their cars,” Bailey said. He also contended that automated parking has some social benefits: With the systems, “you can eliminate a lot of on-street parking, and get a lot of congestion off the street.”

The parking-systems executive also said – and I agree – that parking systems will have an impact on urban land economics and even architecture. Small urban parcels that currently have relatively little value because of their limited development potential will quickly jump in value as automated parking becomes accepted. And the impact also goes to architecture: The design of buildings may also change, if and when architects decide to build narrow parking elevators instead of garages or parking structures.

Even UCLA urban planning Professor Donald Shoup, scourge of parking, sees a number of positives in the automated structures, including greater security from theft and damage. However, Professor Shoup — who opposes parking requirements because free parking is an invitation to car use (see CP&DR Q&A, May 2005) — said automated parking is no panacea.

Great downtown areas, such as downtown San Francisco and Chicago, benefit from expensive parking that discourages people from using their cars, says Shoup, who argues that the high cost of parking is the right policy to induce people to find other ways of getting around, such as transit.

In this light, automated parking is a symptomatic treatment of our chronic car disease.

Hurrah for automated parking systems that can spare worthwhile projects from the demon of parking requirements. But increased parking capacity could lead to more congestion if no policy comes forward to discourage the use of cars altogether.