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Green Light for Downtown Parking Plan

By Teresa Rochester

April 11 -- Santa Monica's downtown parking crunch will likely be alleviated during the next decade following a City Council vote Tuesday night to approve an ambitious plan to renovate, rebuild and create new parking structures in the shopping district.

The plan was unanimously approved despite reservations from a couple of council members who worried that the $92.5 million project -- which will add 1,772 new spaces by 2010 -- would generate more traffic. The council must now look for revenue streams -- likely including parking rate hikes -- to bankroll a $6.7 million funding gap.

Developed by the council-appointed Downtown Parking Task Force during the past year, the plan involves retrofitting three tall structures, demolishing three shorter structures and building replacements, adding 1,000 spaces on 5th Street and implementing a tram service.

Retrofitting the tall parking structures -- 2, 4, and 5 -- likely will be funded by the Earthquake Redevelopment Agency to the tune of $20 million. The lion's share of rebuilding and adding new spaces -- estimated at $72.5 million -- is assumed to be self-financed through revenue bonds paid for by increased Downtown property assessments and parking fees.

Under the plan, the parking fees after the free first two hours could increase to $1.25 for each 20 minutes, compared with the current $1 for each additional 30 minutes. The daily maximum would be raised to $10, compared to the current $7. Currently, the rate for vehicles entering after 6 p.m. is $3.

The flat rate at structures near the Promenade could be $6 on weekends, while rates might be $4 in outlying garages to offer a more affordable alternative.

In addition to balancing the projected budget, the City must draft a programmatic and Environmental Impact Report and lay the groundwork to acquire or jointly develop properties for the projected parking structures on 5th Street.

"I think the environmental work will be illuminating," Councilman Richard Bloom said. "Although, I think we may be encouraging more people to travel downtown from outside the community and not necessarily opening it up for residents."

Residents often visit downtown, according to a City survey that also found that most of them felt the area suffered from a dearth of parking and two-thirds thought the amount of parking needed to be increased.

The six-member task force, which began its work in January of 2001, also pondered whether more parking would encourage more traffic. According to a City staff report "the task force concluded that since current parking resources are near capacity and incremental growth will continue in the downtown area, additional parking resources are needed.

"It was determined that new parking resources should be located within walking distance of the core of Downtown to expand the vitality of the core area," the report continued.

"The parking plan was more than a parking plan and the people on the committee know that the health of downtown circulation will help downtown," said task force member John Warfel, who also sits on the board of the Bayside District Corporation, which oversees downtown.

The 10-year plan to improve and increase parking downtown is based on a "park-once" philosophy, which would encourage visitors to traverse the downtown area on foot or on the proposed tram without having to move their parked cars.

The structures will feature ground floor shops and have a pedestrian friendly look to them.

Once construction is underway, alternative parking will be offered at the proposed Civic Center parking structure. Members of the Pier Restoration Corporation Board asked the council to consider the beach parking lot north of the pier for alternative parking, provided the council agrees to build a $2.2 million dollar ramp that would join Ocean Avenue and the pier to the 750 to 800-space parking lot.

The ramp would link downtown to the pier, which traditionally loses customers in the off-season, boosting business on the old wooden landmark, supporters said.

"Within sight of downtown sits a 750 to 800 (space) parking lot that during half of the year sits empty," said PRC board member Ellen Brennan.

The council, however, did not discuss the ramp.
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