By FRANCES ROBLES
New York Times News Service
MIAMI BEACH -- It seemed like the perfect night life accessory for the South Beach set -- an automated robotic parking garage where trendy clubgoers could park their Porsches with a futuristic touch of a button.
Forget hiding your GPS and favorite Fendi sunglasses from a valet who might ding your new alloy wheels; this garage would park cars itself.
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Instead, malfunctions lasted for hours. Cars were smashed and faulty machinery fell several stories to the ground. Sometimes vehicles were stuck for so long garage operators had to pay for customers' taxis.
"It was clear that the garage was not ready to be open to the public," said Russell Galbut, managing principal at Crescent Heights, the property developer, which has sued two manufacturers over the botched garage.
While engineers aim to perfect self-driving cars, they still have a lot of work to do on another element of the idealized commute of the future: robotic parking. Designs differ, but most consist of a combination of automated ramps, slabs, lifts and shelves, using a computerized system that parks and delivers a car like a high-tech vending machine.
The garage on Collins Avenue is one of two cutting-edge parking projects in South Florida that ended in spectacular debacles. At a luxury residential high-rise in downtown Miami, a $16 million robotic garage plagued with delays finally closed, leaving tenants paying $28 a day to park elsewhere. The police were called to keep order at the building, BrickellHouse.
And around the country, other attempts at self-parking garages have been caught in embarrassing software and hardware mishaps at a time when dozens of projects have been proposed or are underway.
High-tech parking is common in Europe, in the Middle East and elsewhere in Asia, where space limitations made it a priority. But in the United States, errors were common because drivers were unaccustomed to the technology, and some garage builders tried to duplicate foreign successes without understanding how differences in design can make or break a project.
Some smaller garages work fine, but others designed to whiz automobiles away and return them in three minutes or less are bringing back the wrong cars, trapping vehicles, taking what feels like forever and even damaging automobiles.
Local laws and trends in green building are now demanding that developers find more efficient ways to use space, including parking. But it can be more easily mandated than achieved. The company that built the two unsuccessful South Florida garages, Boomerang Systems, declared bankruptcy this summer and last week announced that the company would voluntarily liquidate its assets.
In Hoboken, N.J., where the country's first robotic garage was built more than a decade ago, a Cadillac plunged six stories, and a Jeep dropped four stories a year later. One of the country's largest automated parking garages, in Maryland, is closed after an employee fell to his death in an accident that led to more than $1 million in required repairs.
"On the weekends, it usually takes 45 minutes to an hour to get your car," said Aldo Ferri, 36, an Audi driver who rents an apartment at BrickellHouse, a building that looks out on Biscayne Bay. "You can only have X number of cars delivered versus requested. If the numbers go high, the system goes crazy." In Miami, where public transportation is notoriously lacking, too many people were trying to leave for work at the same time.
After months of problems, the condominium association was forced to hire old-fashioned valets to park cars for people who needed them quickly. This month, the feud with the garage builder deteriorated further and access to the garage was blocked off.
"I'm going to move out," Ferri said.
The BrickellHouse condo association declined to comment. The building developer, Harvey Hernandez, and Boomerang Services -- who have pending litigation against each other on financing matters -- did not respond to requests for comment.
According to Boomerang's website, the company has seven robotic parking projects. The website does not mention the Collins Avenue garage, built for 139 cars, which has sat unused for five years. Photographs provided by the developer, who successfully sued Boomerang, show cars dangling off platforms and squashed in shafts.
The developer hired another robotic parking company, Park Plus, to make fixes, but in late October that attempt landed in court as well; the dispute is not yet resolved.
Even with the repairs, test runs show the Collins Avenue garage takes about seven minutes to retrieve cars. It is supposed to take three. Instead of turning around 60 cars an hour, the garage can handle only 16, the company said.
"For some reason in the U.S., we don't seem to be able to successfully perform this task," said Ron Lowy, a Miami lawyer who sued two parking companies on behalf of Crescent Heights. "Once you start exceeding 100 cars, it starts being a major issue with the technology itself."
He said the company has spent some $10 million on the unused garage.
Ryan Astrup, director of Park Plus, said some garage designs just could not handle the traffic, creating a bottleneck.
"You can't have automated parking at Yankee Stadium and expect it to deliver," Astrup said.
He said drivers generate many of the delays by doing things like walking away without pushing a button to tell the garage to park their car, which jams the system for everyone else.
"Americans are not used to this method of parking," said Astrup, who is from South Africa and has developed successful robotic parking garages in New York. "On the one hand, it is exciting. On the other hand, it can be confusing or overwhelming." Astrup said he could not discuss details of the project because of pending litigation, but asserted his company had fixed the garage, although he acknowledged cars take at least six minutes to be returned to their drivers, double the target time.
Despite the setbacks, parking industry experts say automated parking is here to stay.
"It's unfortunate that you've got projects that haven't happened the way that they were supposed to, because it gives the entire industry a black eye when it shouldn't, because automated parking is a wave of parking for the future," said Christopher Alan, whose company, Auto Parkit, has seven such garages and 20 more under construction, mostly in California. "You don't have a lot companies that are doing this. A few do it very well." Alan said his key to success was designing simpler technology, which allowed him to park 200 cars where a traditional garage can fit 100.
Another South Florida developer, Gil Dezer, said his new high-rise in Sunny Isles, the Porsche Design Tower, would feature an automated garage that would deliver a car right to a resident's door. He called it the Dezervator.
"Ours is an elevator," Dezer said. "An elevator goes up and down. We know how to use an elevator." Casey Jones, a former chairman of the International Parking Institute, said industry leaders believe the kinks will be worked out. They have to: Developers cannot keep paving over land for people to park their cars on, he said.
"The technology is there," Jones said. "We have elevators, and the concept is the same. Elevators move people. In robotic parking, those elevators move cars. Whether it's now or two or three decades from now, we need to continue to pursue it and hone that innovation."