It has been touted as practically the Eighth Wonder of the World. The automated garage behind City Hall has been loudly proclaimed to demonstrate that the little City of West Hollywood is on the cutting edge of creative technology.
I have used the structure several times, and it is pretty cool to think how you leave your car in a box that shuffles it around the four-story structure as if it were in a gigantic pinball machine.
But once you get over the “gee whiz” factor, the $18 million structure loses a lot of its glamour. It is a lot like dating a model; it seems very exciting at first but you very quickly realize this is a very expensive proposition with a lot of faults that did not seem immediately obvious.
On a good day, the wait time for your car is six or seven minutes. If it is lunch hour or near the time when City Hall is closing, it can be 15 or 20 minutes, maybe longer. This is a sore point with City Hall employees.
The larger problem is that there is a growing list of vehicles that are prohibited from using the robo-garage. A notice about a meeting was put out by the city that warned attendees that very small cars and very large cars should think about parking across the street at the Kings Road parking structure. Apparently large handicap-equipped vehicles cannot be accommodated in the garage, which may be a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
When you ask the parking attendant about which vehicles can’t use the garage, with great reluctance he will give you a partial answer. After a recent meeting at City Hall I asked the attendant what sort of vehicles should not use the garage? He promptly responded “exotics.” What was an “exotic”? I queried. “Sports cars, like a Corvette” he replied. At this point it was clear he was hoping this was the end of our conversation, but I thought he was being a bit evasive. “What about Mini Coopers?” I asked, already knowing the answer. He admitted Mini Coopers should not use the garage. The person next to me then asked him “what else?”, to which he added “Smart cars, anything low to the ground.” Apparently most models of the Prius are okay but I would be careful about a Miata. The attendant didn’t offer any information about which larger vehicles were banned as he found it was a good time to make himself scarce.
Small vehicles that are low to the ground, the sort of design which is become increasing important to hybrids and energy efficient vehicles, are the wave of the future for the auto industry, but are banned in West Hollywood’s user-unfriendly parking garage of the future. It seems odd that city staff would not have mentioned the limitations on the models of vehicles that can access the structure when the City Council was debating the issue. Unless of course staff was unaware of the issue, which opens up another can of worms.
This leads us to the issue of the expense of the structure. Because the garage’s technology is so sensitive, it needs a full time attendant, an expensive feature we don’t have in the parking structures at the West Hollywood library.
The math never made sense for this structure. Eighteen million dollars is a lot of money for a 200-car garage, particularly given that we already owned the land. When you recall that the original parking lot behind City Hall had approximately 50 parking spaces, the price tag translates to paying $18 million to build 150 parking spaces. The math works out to $120,000 a parking space for the 150 new spaces.
Given the limitations of the land, the city said it needed to install high tech gadgets to maximize the number of spaces in the garage. Of course the city could have build a conventional parking garage without all the gizmos for $6 or $7 million dollars, which might have only had a total of 150 spaces, but saving the tax payers $10 or $12 million dollars.
But then we are told not to worry. The structure will not be paid for with general fund revenue but financed by a “revenue bond.” Revenue bonds are bonds that are not paid from the city’s general fund but are paid by revenue generated by users of the facility. But since most of the users are City Hall employees, it seems the taxpayers are picking up most of the tab for the robo-garage. Of course if the garage does not generate sufficient income to pay the bond, we know who is going to pick up the short fall.
Aside from the cost to staff the structure, the structure is a maze of moving mechanical parts that need to be regularly maintained, replaced and repaired, a cost not generally associated with a standard parking structure. These costs will be paid from the general fund.
As I had pointed out when the City Council discussed this project, there were reasons Santa Monica has not built a second robo-garage after its experience with its first one. Unfortunately that lesson was lost on the third floor at City Hall. My sources have told me that some staff members had expressed reservations about this project but soon found out it was professionally prudent to keep their professional opinions to themselves. What is the point of hiring talented staff if we are not going to avail ourselves of their opinions and expertise? Transparency in decision making is not considered a virtue at City Hall under the current regime.
So the automatic garage will be a gift that keeps on giving; a monument to good government gone bad.