- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Imagine a parking lot that floats on water, looks like a ship and can hold 500 cars.

Such a vessel is not quite a ship and not even a barge because, as designs show, it is more versatile and better made than most barges. Some of the mobile platforms even have the capacity to be converted into emergency shelters.

This innovative concept isn’t the stuff of pipe dreams. Such a car park already has been in use for 15 years in Gothenburg, Sweden, and others are being built for the cities of Istanbul and Thessaloniki, Greece.

The local promoter is a former U.S. career ambassador, Patrick Theros, a District resident who once hoped to interest local civic officials and landowners in considering the platforms for placement in the Anacostia River as part of the Washington Nationals’ baseball stadium project under construction in Southeast.

Time was against him in that venture, he says; he could not make the right connections to present his proposal before the budget was capped. (Building the platforms can take up to two years — too long for the stadium’s expected April 2008 opening.)

Though parking remains a challenge for the numbers expected to drive to the stadium, Mr. Theros has shifted his sights to other crowded urban venues — in Baltimore, Cleveland and San Diego.

A few months ago, he spoke with Peter Little, executive director of the Baltimore City Parking Authority, who says the platforms might work well adjacent to one of the last open areas around the Inner Harbor, where parking has been an issue for years.

“We are receptive and are taking a look at it as a concept to remedy some parking issues that we have anticipated,” Mr. Little says. The next move is for Mr. Theros’ company, Theros & Theros LLP International Consulting, to compile the hydrographic data necessary to show how the structure would fit by Rash Field on the southern shoreline of the Inner Harbor.

“It’s the last portion of the Inner Harbor yet to be redeveloped into something beautiful, to put it bluntly,” Mr. Little says, explaining that the Inner Harbor master plan calls for inclusion of an underground parking garage. “As an alternative, we could [possibly] use the parking platform while deciding on the fate of the field.”

Later, the platform could be docked elsewhere in the city — “places with water views that have parking issues,” he says.

Affected parties he calls the “stakeholders,” such as residents of nearby Federal Hill, would have to be consulted, and eventually the Baltimore City Council would have to appropriate the funds for the project.

“Everyone laughed when we talked [previously] about a barge because that obviously is an eyesore,” Mr. Little says, “but if instead there is a well-operated and -designed ship, then it becomes something else. What intrigued me is the company obviously has a wealth of knowledge in terms of what it takes to make this type of system work.”

Similar ideas for a floating car-storage facility have been broached elsewhere, Mr. Theros admits, but “we just think we have a better design.” The average barge, he implies, is meant to be functional rather than beautiful, and aesthetics are as critical as mechanics in any such project.

“People living close to the water will look [favorably] at a ship if it is not too high,” he says, and the same would hold true for the parking facility if attractively designed. Another advantage of building from scratch, he asserts, is that the floating platforms just draw between 4 feet and 6 feet of water.

Then, too, platforms save valuable land perhaps better developed for homes, stores and offices than for parking. Building underground, he argues, is costly — close to that of his platforms without considering the land rights — and “once you build underground, you [may not] need it after 30 years. With ours, you take it elsewhere or else sell it for scrap.”

The biggest challenge, he says, is managing a parking lot because all requirements in the United States are local.

Most of the towable platforms are built primarily in Sweden, with the engineering done in Greece and Sweden. (The word acte means coast or shore in Greek.)

The car-park company, Acte-Park, which Mr. Theros represents in the United States, is owned jointly by two European-based firms, the MacGregor Group and Seamark International. A former U.S. ambassador to Qatar and, before that, U.S. deputy coordinator for counterterrorism, Mr. Theros formed an international consulting firm following retirement from the Foreign Service. He also is chairman of the nonprofit U.S.-Qatar Business Council, which promotes trade between the two countries.

“I was working on a totally different sort of project, having to do with equipment that goes into ports like Qatar,” he says, explaining his leap into an entirely different career. “In the course of conversation about car parks, a light went off.” At first he thought how the Acte-Park design might work for the new baseball stadium, but conversations in Baltimore proved more fruitful.

“Ours is not rocket science,” Mr. Theros says. The key issues are the depth of water and tidal variations that affect the kind of mooring, he says, but even with the enormous tide variations on the River Thames in London, machinery has been developed to cope.

The cost varies, depending on such factors as the proximity of a shipyard, delivery charges and the price of labor. If Baltimore signs on, the platforms ideally would be built there. Models come in several designs on top of a basic engineered structure. Two under construction in Croatian shipyards for Thessaloniki — for an estimated total cost of $18 million — will resemble ancient Greek sailing ships known as triremes.

Mr. Theros envisions that designs for Baltimore could include decorative masts resembling those on the tall ships that are part of that city’s past. The four structures recently contracted for Istanbul will operate simultaneously as car parks and platforms for sidewalk cafes and restaurants.

Istanbul city fathers, Mr. Theros says, know their city is built on a major fault line and “in the event of emergency, the stations will have prefab walls, modules and toilets, permitting their almost immediate conversions into aid stations and housing.” Sweden ordered its three-deck car park made to resemble, somewhat vaguely, a viking ship, and it subsequently became a tourist attraction.

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