Inside Seattle's first computerized car-stacking parking garage

SEATTLE -- When Darcy Johnson was looking to rent a new apartment downtown, a parking spot was a deal-breaker.

"I need my car for my job and to make a living, and I don't feel that I'm a candidate for a bicycle," said Johnson, an accountant with clients in Seattle and the suburbs. "And the public transit -- as much as we're improving it in Seattle -- I don't feel that I can depend on it."

A building going up at 9th Avenue and Pine Street caught Johnson's eye -- not only for its environmentally-friendly rooftop but for the ground-level parking plan: a brand-new, high-tech car-stacking system that would be the first of its kind in the Emerald City.

"It's not just a gizmo. It's not just a gadget. It's not something to get media attention. It's a way to have a car downtown," Johnson said. "Look at all the cars we have downtown in that small space. It just makes perfect sense."

A standard parking arrangement would have left space for just 10 cars, said Sara Englehart, the business manager at the Nine and Pine Apartments. In lieu of that, the developer installed a computerized Carmatrix system, which allows the building to park three times the number of cars in the same amount of space, with tenants operating it on their own.

"Our building is built on top of the bus tunnel. Normally, in a city setting, you would dig down and do underground garages. We can't do that here," Englehart said. "So we have to take the space that we have and maximize the square footage we can use."

Residents use a swipe card to activate a keypad and then punch in a code to access their car. Vehicles then shift side-to-side and up-and-down until the requested car is at ground level.

There are other car-stacking systems in Seattle, Englehart added, but none that operate without the assistance of a valet.

"We are the first so far. I know we've had a lot of people check us out," said Englehart, adding that the city required the building to allow the public to view the system from the ground-floor sidewalk outside. "I'm sure we'll see more to come."

Johnson hopes the system moves not only cars -- but minds, when it comes to maximizing space.

"The bottom line in this situation is we need affordable and available parking in the city of Seattle," Johnson said. "I would climb on a ladder for 10 stories to get up to my car if I had to because I need that car. That's made the difference for me."

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