Little did they know, when Arthur Denny, Carson Boren and Doc Maynard split Seattle into conflicting street grids in 1853, that future land barons would need robots to store carriages underground.

But that’s exactly how Spire, an upscale condominium tower, will solve a puzzle the settlers helped create at a small triangular lot where Wall Street, Sixth Avenue and Denny Way cross ancestral Duwamish tribe land.

Imagine the challenge to drive down successive ramps, steer tighter than a right angle toward the parking rows, and find an open stall — within a garage shaped like a tipped-up Toblerone chocolate box.

Traffic Lab is a Seattle Times project that digs into the region’s thorny transportation issues, spotlights promising approaches to easing gridlock, and helps readers find the best ways to get around. It is funded with the help of community sponsors Madrona Venture Group and PEMCO Mutual Insurance Company. Seattle Times editors and reporters operate independently of our funders and maintain editorial control over Traffic Lab content.

Spire residents won’t need to. Instead, they’ll leave their cars at one of three elevators, then tap a key card. A red dolly under the car sprouts steel tines to lift the car a few inches. The elevator then descends like a trap door. Once the car is lowered into the garage, it’s shuttled to another dolly that moves it to a parking place. Multiple dollies on rails transfer cars across 266 stalls in levels B2 to B9.

The automation eliminates space-hogging ramps and driving lanes on the eight lower levels.

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“It’s about twice as dense as a typical parking garage,” said Indigo Johnson, project manager for California-based ParkWorks, which installed Spire’s custom parking system.

ParkWorks won’t disclose the project cost, but residents will pay $120 a month more in homeowner dues per car, said Paul Menzies, CEO of Laconia, which developed the 41-story, 343-unit building. That’s half what some commuter garages charge near South Lake Union.

There are roughly 100 automated garages in the U.S., a number count that should grow as technology cost shrinks and the systems become mainstream, said Yair Goldberg, an expert adviser to the National Parking Association.

They’re best known in dense downtowns with extreme land costs, including New York, Shanghai and Tokyo. But Goldberg also points to projects in sprawling cities such as Houston and Winnipeg, Manitoba. If some parking can be replaced by retail shops or housing, that’s “a better return on investment that can happen anywhere,” he said.

Goldberg said U-tron, where he works, outfitted a robotic garage for $5 million in Hoboken, New Jersey, which reduced the parking levels from 10 stories to four, making room for 32 more housing units.


In Seattle, Spire’s automation helped developers improve their original structure design, so all cars go underground instead of stacking half of them above the surface.

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Project developers foresee continuing demand for parking, despite the ordeal of Denny Way gridlock. The Spire’s parking stall supply is 0.78 spaces per unit, in a transit-filled zone where city regulations allow developers to build zero.

“There’s a lot of talk about cars going away. I don’t buy it,” Menzies said. “I think people who ride downtown using Uber or a taxi during the workweek will still want to drive on the weekend.”

The electric-powered robotics should reduce energy use within the building, compared with driving down to a stall.

With less exhaust, there’s no need for ventilation fans underground, or the extra carbon it takes to build concrete ramps and dig deeper parking levels, builders say.

Lighting can be reduced, since pedestrians aren’t present. To store and retrieve each car takes about 1 kilowatt hour of electricity, said Johnson, comparable to running a hair dryer one hour.

For the residents, a bright drop-off area feels safer than walking through a conventional garage at night, said Sam Neff, vice president of ParkWorks. A concierge will be nearby to help.

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The system typically retrieves cars in about three minutes, and could handle 60 per hour, Neff said. Owners can watch the maneuvers on video monitors.

About 15% of Spire residents are expected to own electric cars when the building opens in mid-August, Menzies said.

A pair of charging stations are available near the entrance. A few months later, ParkWorks will fasten a dozen robotic arms and power cords to the lower floors, for overnight recharging. Drivers can insert a flashlight-shaped adapter called a “plug bug” into their cars, so the charging arms can detect them, Neff said.

Brent Toderian, a consultant and former Vancouver, B.C., chief planner, said he’s curious about the energy savings compared to conventional parking. But he also thinks these amenities will induce car ownership, leading to more driving and emissions.

“The best kind of parking is limiting parking. The best kind of vehicle is fewer vehicles, if you care about a climate emergency,” Toderian said.

The Spire inhabits one of about 45 triangular lots downtown that architects identified in their 2013 design proposal as opportunities for distinctive buildings or parks. One historic triangle, the former Seattle Hotel in Pioneer Square, contains the concrete “Sinking Ship” parking garage.

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Yinhai Wang, civil and environmental engineering professor at the University of Washington, predicts robotic parking will thrive in Seattle as land costs rise. Certain riverfront cities, such as Shanghai, have used parking automation to tackle odd-shaped lots like Spire’s, he said. Wang sees no downside, except possible malfunctions.

In the mid-2010s, a rash of breakdowns, including two in Florida, ruined cars and forced drivers to park elsewhere, The New York Times reported. Goldberg says U.S. companies have improved since then.

“Just like any other elevator or escalator, or even a gated parking garage, it needs to be maintained,” he said.

ParkWorks is opening a second fully robotic garage in Culver City, California, this fall, and built more than 20 mechanical systems where cars are lifted into storage frames. Neff said the firm designed a fully automated garage in Silicon Valley that will be twice as large as Spire’s.

“The West Coast, specifically, I think has kind of been operated under a feeling of limitless space. L.A. built freeways, not ‘traffic-jamways,’ and as we bump up against reality I think people are getting a lot smarter,” Neff said.

“When people get educated, I think you will see a tipping point and a lot of these garages happening,” he added. “That’s what we’re banking on anyway.”

This story includes information from the history book “Sons of the Profits,” by Bill Speidel.