Plans for `robotic' garage face friendly opposition

Builder, preservationists hope to reach compromise on downtown project

April 11, 2004|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN STAFF

Preservationists adore developer David Hillman for spending millions of dollars to convert downtown Baltimore gems such as the old Hecht's and Standard Oil buildings into modern apartments.

But that 120-foot-tall "robotic" parking garage he wants to build? That they don't love so much.

After all, it would loom over the 213-year-old former church rectory on West Saratoga Street where Preservation Maryland has its stately home.

"It obviously would have a negative impact, in our view," said Tyler Gearhart, executive director.

So far the difference of opinion has been amicable as the two sides - normally staunch allies - work toward a mutually satisfactory solution to Hillman's parking needs at his nearby Charles Towers apartments.

Preservationists have an edge in the discussion because Hillman needs a city waiver to exceed an 80-foot height limit on the site, just west of Charles Street.

Hillman's next scheduled stop is at Thursday's meeting of the city Design Advisory Panel, where height and aesthetics likely will be discussed.

If Hillman gets his way, he would give Baltimore its first automated garage, one where George Jetson might feel fine docking his flying machine.

Motorists would drive into a bay resembling a home's garage, get out and lock up. A computerized system would pull the driverless car onto an elevator, whisk it to the appropriate level and, using a rolling device called a trolley, put it in an empty space - all without a human at the controls.

When drivers wanted their cars, they would swipe their ticket and the process would unfold in reverse within an estimated 2 minutes. It's not for nothing that Hillman gave the company he formed for the venture a futuristic name: Robopark LLC.

The garage would cost $15 million, he said, and have 670 spaces on 17 levels, five underground and a dozen above. That would suffice for his residential and retail tenants and for Peter Angelos' office tenants, with space left over for Charles Street merchants.

Without the height waiver, he said, it would not be economically feasible to go below ground, leaving him with just 270 spaces above - too few for his and Angelos' needs.

Although rare in the United States, automated garages are common in Europe, according to the parking firm working with Hillman. Baltimore has had mechanical - but not automated - garages before. The best-known was the green Minit Garage at Calvert and Lombard streets. It was converted in the early 1980s to the Brookshire Suites hotel.

Hillman said only an automated garage could fit on the small lot on Saratoga, and it would have advantages over the conventional type: less air pollution since cars would not drive up and down ramps, and fewer safety risks since drivers would not walk alone to their cars.

And, he said, there would be less likelihood of dings or thefts from cars with no other drivers in the garage. The garage would use technology made by York, Pa.-based Westfalia Technologies, which designs automated warehouses.

"Once people park in it, they'll always want to park in it," said Lee Lazarus of APT Parking Technologies, a New York company that offers the Westfalia system.

Lazarus said there would be backup systems in case of a malfunction or power failure, and, at Hillman's request, an attendant on site. Even at rush hour, Lazarus said, waits would last only a few minutes with multiple lifts working at once.

From the outside, the garage would look like a "nondescript" office building, Hillman said, with faux windows and a skin of brick or a material that resembled it. (He abandoned his idea of cladding it in mirror glass.)

"Unlike most developers, I'm not going to tell you this is going to be the greatest-looking building in the world," he said. "You ain't gonna see this in the architecture hall of fame."

Preservation Maryland's Gearhart said the technology sounds fine, but the building's scale worries him. Gearhart's group leases the former Old St. Paul's Rectory, a three-story, Federal-style brick house built in 1791.

Gearhart praised Hillman's contributions to the city and said, "We're trying to keep an open dialogue with him."

Kemp Byrnes, who owns property nearby and lives on Charles Street, called Hillman "one of the greatest blessings that ever came to the city of Baltimore."

Byrnes said Gearhart has a "legitimate concern" but that Hillman and merchants need a sizable garage. If a better alternative can't be found elsewhere, Byrnes said, "then I would go for Hillman in a second because we need the parking."

To Gearhart, the solution might be to combine a new Hillman garage with the 180-space Brown's Arcade garage, which is across an alley from Hillman's lot. Gearhart said shops at street level could obscure the parking.

On Friday, Hillman spoke with Paul Edenbaum, owner of Brown's Arcade garage, to discuss joining forces. Edenbaum seemed interested, Hillman said, though it could be hard to link up if major utilities are found under the alley, as some suspect.

If it works, Hillman said, the combined site could handle a new 700-space automated garage - without going above the 80-foot limit.

For Hillman, the goal is to control enough parking to support his investment in Charles Towers, the Charles Plaza retail area, Park Charles apartments and, eventually, 183 apartments in BGE's former headquarters.

The last thing he wants is to be at odds with Gearhart. "I'm not at war with him," Hillman said. "He's got an opinion. I don't disagree with him. But I would like to make some money with my buildings."

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