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The Black Hole of Planning

By Frank Gruber

This is a painful column to write. Not because I have an ugly secret to confess, or because I have someone else's ugly secret to report on. I'm not reminiscing about the Presidential election.

No, this column is painful to write because it is about parking. Even I, urban planning fetishist, find parking to be as dull as it gets. Parking is the black hole of planning. Whatever cool plans anyone has for building anything good ultimately get sucked into figuring out where to put the cars.

A few years ago, when I was on the Planning Commission, I went to a conference and a speaker gave the statistic that for every car in the Los Angeles region, there were seven parking spaces.

But there's never one there when you need it.

Dull or not, parking is important in a big way. Nothing except possibly roads themselves has as much impact on traffic as the availability of parking. Parking consumes huge resources of space and money.

Parking affects the "look and feel" of the landscape. Depending on the physical relationship between parking and buildings the same amount of parking for the same amount of buildings will have a radically different impact on how people use land, how they use streets, and how they interact with each other.

Parking makes people angry. People want it, and they want it now. Strangely, parking is the one resource that normally rational people think they will have more of if it is given away.

Meaning, that people not only want parking, they want it for free. But other than on a Monopoly board, there is no such thing. The cost of "free parking" is included in everything from the cost of housing to the price everyone pays for groceries, whether one uses parking or not.

Turf battles over preferential parking pit neighbor against neighbor, or neighbor against neighborhood business. Santa Monicans talk about their "right" to parking as if it were in the Constitution.

But Santa Monicans don't care enough about parking in our downtown to attend meetings about it. Very few parking users -- in fact, very few people at all -- have attended the meetings the City's Downtown Parking Task Force has held over the past five months to study and devise solutions to the downtown "parking shortage" of 2,400 spaces that the City's April 2000 "Downtown Parking Management Program" report by Kaku Associates projected would occur within ten years.

Nonetheless, I can now report, however painfully, that the Task Force is preparing to approve a program of incremental increases to the parking supply downtown, along with a mixture of retrofits and new construction to deal with downtown's aging and seismically suspect parking structures.

Back in April, when I last reported on the doings of the Task Force, it had just hosted a (sparsely attended) public workshop. After that, City staff and their consultants, the celebrated new urbanist design firm of Moule & Polyzoides, canceled the next scheduled public meeting so that they could hit the computers and generate some specific recommendations.

They unveiled those recommendations at the Task Force's most recent meeting, on May 24.

Up until now the Task Force has skated around the fundamental political and philosophical dispute that caused the City to convene the Task Force in the first place: the conflict between downtown businesses that want more parking and residents who know that building more parking will attract more traffic and congestion.

At the May 24 meeting, staff and the consultants confronted this fundamental disagreement but did not take sides. Stephanos Polyzoides, the lead consultant, said that there was no rational way to choose between the pro-parking and anti-parking philosophies because they were, in his words, "mutually exclusive ideological positions."

Instead, Polyzoides proposed a technical and empirical analysis. He suggested that the City should first look at (i) what have historically been the ratios of parking to development in downtown Santa Monica, and (ii) what are the ratios of parking to development in similar downtowns around the country (i.e., downtowns where visitors tended to park once and then walk to multiple destinations), and then try to maintain those ratios as development increases.

Talk about threading a political needle. Polyzoides gave the Task Force a rationale for what would amount to a compromise between parking builders and parking opposers.

To understand this, one needs to look at the numbers. What Polyzoides came up with is that as the net amount of development increases in the Bayside District (between 1996 and 2004 development in the district will have increased by about 11%), the City should maintain the ratio of parking spaces to square footage of built-space at about what it was in 1996: 2.42 spaces per one thousand square feet.

When Polyzoides ran the math, this formula resulted in the suggestion that the City add about 400 spaces in the Bayside District, a very different number from the 2,400-space "parking deficit" that Kaku Associates predicted would occur within ten years.

Four hundred happens to be about the same number, however, as the number of spaces the City can create by adding two floors of parking to the three existing structures that have only five floors. Given that land is hard to come by downtown, adding to these structures is the most realistic alternative for building more parking in any case.

However he got there, Polyzoides' suggestion represents a compromise between the two ideologies.

I count myself among those who believe it is self-defeating to add parking downtown. Currently the parking structures average about 80 percent occupancy during peak periods. My guess is that because of latent demand for parking, and because parking scarcity drives drivers away, occupancy will always be about 80 percent, no matter how many more spaces there are.

What will certainly increase with more parking is the number of cars, but not necessarily the number of customers.

But then again, I could be wrong. Perhaps the ratio of 2.4 spaces to 1,000 square feet is a golden mean for parking in an early 21st century, satellite downtown in a post-freeway era megalopolis. Perhaps everyone will be a little happier with a little more parking.

It also is not unreasonable to replace 35 year old structures with buildings that will stand up better in an earthquake, especially if the new structures can have pedestrian friendly retail in their ground floors. I am not so dogmatic as to oppose making the structures a few floors bigger.

The Task Force still must address issues outside the downtown core, and they have not addressed important issues like pricing, but with the benefit of some artful consulting, they are on their way to a reasonably balanced approach for the Bayside District.

Oh, the pain.

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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