I was chatting with an architect friend of mine the other day and I was shocked when he pointed out to me a structure rising right behind a brand new apartment building that is currently being constructed in a neighborhood east of the city of San Jose. He quickly indicated that the strange-looking metal structure taking shape was actually a seven story elevator built in order to store the vehicles of the building’s tenants.
I could hardly believe it. I have already seen automated car parking systems that stack cars on top of each other in densely populate cities like Tokio and Hong Kong, but never in a small residential project in my hometown. How ridiculous I thought; to spend what had to be a considerable amount of money just for the purpose of providing the buildings tenants with one or two parking spaces for their vehicles.
I do not doubt that the terrain where the apartment building is being constructed only allows for a handful of parking spaces to be built around it, and an underground parking lot is perhaps not a feasible alternative. I can understand that most likely there were no easy alternatives for providing the building with sufficient parking spaces for the resident’s vehicles. However, I cannot avoid wondering if this is actually the best solution that the project’s developers could come up with.
Despite the fact that automated parking lots are becoming increasingly common around the world this does not mean that they are necessarily cheap to build. I cannot imagine the cost of constructing and operating such a structure, let alone its maintenance cost. However, I have no doubt that these costs will be transferred directly to the future apartment owners who will enjoy higher mortgage payments and monthly maintenance fees.
Constructions like this one are in my view far from being an innovative or visionary way of addressing the challenges of motor vehicle parking in densely populated urban areas. I see this elevator much more as a gimmick used to persuade us to continue to pay ever higher amounts of money for increasingly smaller living spaces.
I cannot see how investment in such a structure will significantly improve the wellbeing of the inhabitants of this building. What I can easily imagine though is the burden that this will represent for the apartment owners who will have to cover the costly maintenance fees or even the periodic extraordinary fees needed to cover the cost of repairing this contraption whenever a mechanical malfunction occurs.
I would argue that a truly bold residential project in relation to the Costa Rican context would be one in which space for parking motor vehicles would be far from the list of priorities. Instead, it would be one in which the wellbeing of both the future residents and the surrounding community is placed as a top priority.
I am not even talking about going as far as the architects and designers of the Cykelhus OhBoy built in the Swedish city of Malmö; although this does serves as an interesting example or a residential project entirely designed around a non-motorized form of transportation.
Instead of focusing on providing sufficient space for vehicle parking architects and the project developers could in turn chose to allocate this space to the construction of green areas, recreational facilities, or even more apartments which would perhaps reduce the general maintenance fees as well as the price of each individual apartment. The creative challenge of making a project attractive despite the lack of sufficient vehicle parking space would make their work and vision truly stand out and be characterized as unique and visionary.
Two main challenges stand in the way of this approach in my opinion. Clearly such a vision would not be an easy sell in the car obsessed Costa Rican culture. The Costa Rican society is still very much a motor vehicle-centered culture and Costa Ricans generally consider the use of a motor vehicle as their preferred way of meeting their mobility needs.
In addition, developers and investors tend to be risk averse and generally prefer to do more of the same with some slight variations. Truly revolutionary and paradigm shifting projects will almost always be considered as too risky and hard to finance.
The challenges previously outlined are very real, which means that Costa Ricans will probably have to wait a bit longer before they can witness the development and acceptance of residential projects that directly challenge the need for granting such a big importance to the motor vehicle in the design of our living spaces.
However, in the mean time lets not be fooled. A seven story monstrosity like the one described in this article is simply more of the same. If it is actually finished and put into operation it will stand as a testament of the misdirected promise of better living spaces and more livable communities.