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The District’s newest garage does the parking for you.

This is the future of parking in America, as pioneered at the Summit Grand Parc on McPherson Square: You drive into the garage bay, shut off the engine, and get out of the way. Once you’ve given the all-clear to a digital terminal outside—and laser sensors have confirmed that no one is moving near the vehicle—a garage door closes behind the car, a turntable pivots it 45 degrees counterclockwise, and the floor, which is actually a steel cargo pallet, sinks out of sight, taking your car with it.

Below is a concrete vault, 106 feet long by 60 feet wide by 40 feet deep. There, a robotic freight-handling unit nudges the pallet slightly and then, with a motion technicians call a “telestroke,” swaps the full pallet on the lift for an empty one. The effect is as if two multiton machines were giving each other some skin.

The robot car-carrier is mounted on rails in an aisle between two towering, blue-painted steel shelving units, which have a total of 74 car-sized cubbyholes. It moves to the closest empty cubbyhole and makes another telestroke, leaving the car in its own steel cage.

When you want the car again, you merely swipe your key fob against one of the sensors inside the building elevator, at the garage entrance, or in the cafe on the second floor. The process repeats itself in reverse, fetching the car in a minute or two, depending on how many other cars are stashed away.

The whole transaction requires no help from an attendant, a valet, or any human other than the software engineer who programmed it. The builders of the facility, Mid-American Elevator Co., say that this is the first fully automated parking facility in the United States. Starting Dec. 28, residents of the new luxury apartments at the Summit Grand Parc will be able to use it for $275 a month—$300 for small or midsize sport-utility vehicles. (This particular setup can’t handle jumbo SUVs such as Hummers or Chevy Suburbans.)

There’s some dispute over Mid-American’s claim to American

automated-parking primacy. A larger facility in Hoboken, N.J., built by a rival company called Robotic Parking, opened in October. But Mid-American Vice President Jack Litschewski says that the McPherson Square facility is fully operational and automatic, while the Hoboken garage still requires “someone with a laptop.” Robotic’s president says it keeps an attendant to supervise the machines, but the garage runs itself.

By getting rid of ramps and aisles and by lowering ceilings, designers can double the parking capacity that conventional garages would provide. Such automated high-density car storage has been used for years in Europe and Japan. And earlier this year, a huge facility opened in Istanbul, stacking 612 cars in a parking cabinet 14 stories high.

Summit Properties, the developer of the Grand Parc, faced space restrictions of its own. In rehabbing the old University Club, built in 1912, Summit was prohibited from building underneath. So the parking facility had to go under the newly built tower portion of the project.

The bill for the garage was $1.5 million. But Summit can operate it without having to pay labor costs for parking attendants. “We’ll deal with [automation] when it hits en masse,” says Emil Abate, secretary-treasurer of Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Local 27, which represents parking workers. “But it’s really in the experimental stage at this point.”

Looking beyond the obvious real-estate customers, Litschewski has his eye on auto dealers, who usually have to store their inventory on huge tracts of asphalt. Imagine a towering showcase of cars, he says, each on display in its own jewel box.

But revolutionary as the garage may be, it’s based on established technology. The sliding pallets are derived from a lift system used for stacking inventory in the steel industry. “Once we got into it, it’s the same as building an elevator,” says Matt Gallagher, one of the machine’s technicians. “Square, plumb, and level.” CP