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Build it and They Will Come?

By Frank Gruber

"Witness the spectacular success of the Crenshaw and Westchester Districts. Bullocks has built a beautiful store in Westwood, with free parking for 900 cars. Robinsons are doing the same in Beverly Hills with free parking for 1200 cars. All of these fine stores, and others, are capturing a large percentage of the high-class trade that rightfully belongs in Santa Monica."

-- From "A Proposed Parking Plan for the Downtown Business District," a brochure the Santa Monica Parking Authority published in the 50's.

In olden days downtown property owners wanted parking because they feared that without it, downtown would decay in a losing competition with new shopping centers, like those in Crenshaw and Westchester.

So the city created an assessment district, built the six structures on Second and Fourth Streets, and for 20 years thereafter, downtown steadily decayed.

In the late 80's two old reliables saved downtown from oblivion: good design and new investment, in the form of the remodeled Promenade and new movie theaters.

Property owners now want the city to build more parking downtown, not to save downtown from decay, but because it is booming. There are so many shoppers and employees that the structures are sometimes full.

Last Saturday the city's Downtown Parking Task Force conducted a public workshop, its latest public meeting since starting work in January.

Only about fifteen members of the public attended. Those thousands of you with other plans missed a terrific seminar on urban planning.

A little background. In 1997 the City, at the behest of downtown businesses, hired consultants to study the parking situation. The consultants calculated that demand for parking was approaching supply and by 2010 would exceed it by somewhere between 1,100 and 2,400 spaces.

However, when the Planning Commission discussed the study in April 2000, commissioners were skeptical. No-growthers (such as Kelly Olsen) found common ground with environmental urbanists (such as then commissioners Ken Breisch and John Zinner) in questioning the underlying premise that the city should do anything to bring more people or cars downtown, when the area is often so very crowded.

The upshot was that the City Council constituted a task force consisting of three council members, one planning commissioner, and two representatives of the Bayside District Corporation to conduct public hearings, study the issue, and make long-term recommendations not only about the future supply of parking, but also about operational issues and how the city should deal with upgrading the structures to meet new seismic standards.

From the start, the city indicated that it wanted to study parking in the context of the overall situation downtown, and the city hired the architectural and planning firm of Moule & Polyzoides as consultants. Moule & Polyzoides is one of the firms most identified with the "new urbanist" critique of the suburban, automobile-oriented planning model.

At Saturday's workshop, consultants and city staff presented information on the historical context (that's where I got my copy of the Parking Authority brochure from the 50's), existing conditions, seismic retrofit and operations issues, the assessment of current and future parking needs, and where new parking might go if the city determines to build it.

Then the task force heard from the public, and there was a wide-ranging and informative discussion.

The task force has done a lot of work and organized a lot of material, but so far it has skirted the big issues the Planning Commission identified: do we need more parking, or would more parking further contribute to traffic and other problems associated with the popularity of downtown?

The issue was framed nicely by Janet Morris, whose family owns property on the Promenade, when she said that the City's studies already show that downtown needs more parking, and by Sandy Grant, of the city's Environmental Task Force, who said we should look at reducing demand before we conclude that we must build more spaces.

Let's assume that the studies are correct, that there is a parking shortage, that people who drive downtown can't easily find places to park, and that there is such a lack of parking that businesses are suffering. Will building more parking help either the parkers or the businesses?

The problem with the studies of parking demand is that they do not evaluate the "latent demand" for parking, meaning the number of people who would drive to downtown Santa Monica but for their belief that it is hard to park there. Anecdotally, at least, this is a large number. The very people who say that we need more parking complain that they -- or their customers -- avoid downtown because they can't park.

Measuring latent demand is crucial. If people are not driving downtown because they believe parking is a hassle, then to the extent we add parking, and weaken that belief, we will attract more drivers and parking will be just as tight. Not only will we not make it easier for parkers, but traffic will increase.

Ignoring latent demand leads to the the fallacy that increasing parking does not generate traffic. It does, because more parking encourages people to drive downtown who would otherwise avoid the area or find another way to get there. This is the same phenomenon that explains why increasing road capacity does not solve traffic congestion.

Businesses want more customers. But all the failed and failing shopping centers and retail strips that blight the landscape, and the history of Santa Monica's downtown itself, demonstrate that not even free parking attracts shoppers.

If people want to get somewhere, but parking is restricted, they find alternatives. Consider the Getty or the Hollywood Bowl: parking is limited, but people aren't.

After the workshop, taking advantage of the parking space I had in the Ken Edwards Center, I walked to the Promenade. I needed to buy a book and I wanted to see if business was suffering because of the lack of parking or the start of construction on the downtown transit plan.

Business must be down. I only had to wait in line ten minutes at Borders for a cashier, and when I went to buy a taco at La Salsa, I actually found a seat. Of course I had to share another customer's table, but then that's what I like about the urban experience.

When I walked back to my car, I noticed that Mark Friedman Furniture on Fourth Street was going out of business. Uh-oh -- bad times. I thought of all that parking in Westchester.

No, it turns out that the building has a new owner who is tearing it down (but keeping the architecturally significant facade), to build a bigger, mixed-use building. The furniture store is looking for another location downtown.

The next meeting of the Downtown Parking Task Force will be April 25 at 6:30 p.m., at the Ken Edwards Center. Be there, or never complain about parking or traffic again.

The views expressed in this column are those of Frank Gruber
and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of The Lookout.
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