By Frank Gruber
September 8, 2009 -- The City Council will tonight again tackle the issue of downtown parking, when it reviews recommendations in a report the City commissioned in 2007 from Walker Parking Consultants as an update to the parking plan the council adopted in 2006.
The 2006 plan emerged from a series of hearings earlier in the decade that resulted in agreement to replace three of the existing six structures on Second and Fourth Streets, instead of giving them needed seismic upgrades.
The new structures would increase parking capacity by about 700 spaces. The plan also allowed for the possibility of building up to another 1,000 spaces, but only if those spaces were "justified" by more commercial development downtown, at the rate of 2.1 spaces per 1,000 square feet of development, and only if the building of new spaces could be financed from parking revenues.
Notwithstanding these restrictions, the City Council proceeded to spend redevelopment money to buy properties on Fifth Street to accommodate more parking structures, even though the amount of commercial development that could justify the spaces had not (and has not) been built and there was no evidence that there would be sufficient parking revenues to finance the structures.
The Walker report came out in June, and it became the most exciting thing I read this summer. (Even though I also read Julia Child's memoir, My Life in France -- exciting stuff!)
Parking is the monster of contemporary urbanism. Parking takes up so much space and costs so much money, that the parking requirements that cities have legislated in the past 80 years have made it next to impossible to build congenial and convenient cities without spending huge amounts to subsidize parking. (And in suburban locations one can't build anything without tying up huge amounts of land in surface parking.)
All the subsidized parking has also created the bad traffic that people complain about, because nothing encourages driving like knowing that there is cheap and available parking at one's destination.
In this context, the Walker report is revolutionary. It shows that the City does not have a parking shortage downtown, that it will not have one for the foreseeable future, and that it can deal with any parking issues that might arise with smarter pricing of parking.
No new parking structures needed.
True, the analysts from Walker found that the six parking structures on Second and Fourth Streets were at times nearly full, but overall they found that even at those peak times, only about 65 percent of the total number of parking spaces downtown are in use. That's because a large number of privately owned spaces downtown are empty, even at times of peak demand.
The reason why they are empty is that the City's pricing policies charge the cheapest rates for the best parking -- for on-street parking and for the parking in the six structures. It's like, why eat hot dogs when steak is cheaper? What's more, Walker found that what the City charges for parking is less than what other cities charge and much less than what private operators of parking garages charge.
The Walker report points out that City staff estimates it costs $57,000 to build a new parking space. To amortize that amount over 30 years, at 6 percent interest, would cost about $340 a month.
Right now the City charges $82.50 for a monthly parking pass and no more than $7 per day if you don't have a pass; Walker recommends increasing those numbers to $121 and $9, but even then the parking subsidies -- you have to add in the cost of operations and maintenance -- would be obscene.
The conclusion is obvious -- the City should not build more parking. Instead, to the extent there is a need for more parking, the City should work with the owners of private lots to open them up to public use. This is what the report recommends.
Walker does recommend adding some new spaces. As mentioned above, part of the parking plan has been to replace the three smaller structures downtown instead of upgrading them seismically. This would add about 240 spaces per structure, and allow for the City to improve the pedestrian-friendliness of the structures by adding storefronts to their ground floors.
The interesting thing, though, is that Walker only recommends doing this for two of the three structures. The location of Parking Structure #3 (on Fourth at Arizona) could instead be used as a site for the new movie theaters the City has been talking to developers about.
What will the council do? The Bayside District Corporation board, which to a great extent represents downtown business interests, has endorsed most of the report's recommendations. ("Parking Plan on Drive," August 24, 2009) So I'm encouraged to hope that the council will follow the report's recommendations, as staff recommends, and then starts to figure out what else it could to with the properties the City has acquired on Fifth Street, and what the City could do with the redevelopment money it has earmarked for more parking downtown.
But with parking you never know. Business interests everywhere complain that there's not "adequate" parking. (But a question: do businesses in downtown Santa Monica suffer from a lack of customers?) And subsidizing parking has an undeniable populist appeal that makes normally clear-thinking elected officials weak at the knees.
The Walker report is revolutionary. Come, council members, join the revolution.
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Tomorrow is the big day -- the Pier's 100th anniversary. I'm looking forward to the party. I only want to say that just like you can't tell the players without a scorecard, you can't truly understand just how wonderful the Pier is without the new book written by James Harris, of the Pier Restoration Corporation, to commemorate the centennial, Santa Monica Pier: A Century on the Last Great Pleasure Pier [http://www.angelcitypress.com/smpr.html].
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Friday is a big day for Step Up on Second when the provider of services to the mentally ill opens Daniel's Village, its residential treatment center for young adults. ("Step Up's New Housing Facility set to Open," September 3, 2009) Congratulations to Tod Lipka and everyone else at Step Up for persevering against difficulties ("WHAT I SAY -- Rolling Out the Not Welcome Mat," October 16, 2006 and seeing this needed project through to completion.