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Parking. Can't Live With It, Can't Live Without It

By Frank Gruber

Hell is paved with good intentions. There is also plenty of parking.

Since last spring I have covered the meetings of the Downtown Parking Task Force, but the three City Council members, two representatives from the Bayside District, and one Planning Commissioner who comprise the group have not made my life as a columnist easy.

Here we have an opinionated selection of residents and politicians, charged with resolving one of the thorniest and most far-reaching nuts-and-bolts issues facing the City, an issue known to engender emotion, and yet they persistently refrain from providing fodder for a juicy column.

No screaming and yelling, no palpable hypocrisy, no venality, no self-aggrandizing pomposity -- in a word, nothing that a columnist can write about and count on to arouse controversy, provoke letters to the editor, and ignite righteous indignation.

Just six people of diverse views, a diligent staff, and thoughtful and provocative consultants, all trying to answer the kind of question that should be simple, but never is: how much parking should downtown Santa Monica have?

In brief, the issue is whether the continued economic development of downtown, and the convenience of residents in getting downtown, depends on building more parking, given that studies predict that peak period demand will exceed supply in a few years, or whether adding additional parking will simply encourage more people to drive to downtown, thus exacerbating traffic and other congestion-related ills, ultimately to the detriment of all, including downtown businesses.

An urban theorist can design a city on the hill, but decisions like these are what count. And big decisions like these ultimately affect little decisions, such as whether an entrepreneur can open a little restaurant in an old building that doesn't have parking.

What kind of zoning code says that an 1,800 square foot restaurant, the size of the little Japanese place, Musha, that wants to open at 424 Wilshire, needs 14 parking spaces? Fourteen spaces that are not to be available for anyone else's use?

The answer to that question is a zoning code designed for strip malls.

I have definite views about parking, mainly that too much is a bad thing, but I must record my respect for John Warfel and Bill Tucker, the Bayside District representatives on the Task Force who stand most solidly in favor of more parking. Warfel and Tucker are smart, unfailingly polite, and they have every good intention for downtown Santa Monica -- a place they clearly love.

At the most recent meeting of the Task Force, two important things happened. For one, the committee started to receive real data about the costs of building more parking, which, especially on land that the City would have to buy, will be expensive, and, for another, staff said they would respond to questions about what effect additional parking will have on downtown traffic; i.e., whether more parking will itself attract more cars.

I don't want to talk in millennial terms, but perhaps the fact that we have crossed into a new era on the calendar is significant because for the first time City staff will analyze traffic as something to do with how we treat cars, not as something that is only the consequence of development.

Development is not the proximate cause of traffic. People wanting to travel in their cars is the proximate cause, and that decision, (a) to go somewhere, and (b) to drive there, is a complicated one that involves much more than how much development there is.

This is a point, in fact, that Task Force members Warfel and Tucker have made. Up until now, the City's staff and consultants have discussed the need for parking with reference to the square footage of development, but Warfel and Tucker have argued that because people come to the Promenade because it is the Promenade, the square footage of the Promenade should be considered as development as well.

Although I disagree with their conclusion -- that this means we need to build more parking -- Warfel and Tucker are onto something.

People come to downtown Santa Monica because it is a good place, not because there is an excessive amount of development. I can say this because, plainly, there isn't a lot of development. Most buildings, with the notable exception of the parking structures, are one or two or three stories, and the net amount of growth in the past decade has been paltry.

We could reduce traffic congestion downtown, and also make parking available, by making downtown unattractive. Let's insist that movie theaters only play movies people don't want to see. Require that restaurants serve bad food. Bring back unfashionable clothing stores. Rip out the dinosaurs.

Some people in Santa Monica would like this solution, but not those who remember the abject dreariness of the old Third Street Mall.

All right, so people come to downtown Santa Monica because they like it. But why do so many of them drive there, when all we hear is how impossible it is to do so?

I won't analyze the whole car culture, but my guess is that one important reason people drive downtown is that there is lots of parking at a low price. It will be interesting to see what the new City studies show in this regard.

The issue is important because the biggest complaint people have about downtown Santa Monica is traffic. In fact, traffic is the biggest complaint people have about development in general.

I happen to believe, and in this I imagine Warfel and Tucker concur, that the economic growth of downtown, and Santa Monica as a whole, is important. But many people oppose growth, and they use traffic as an excuse to fight it.

Fears about traffic, for instance, killed the proposed downtown Target, a business that even most opponents acknowledged would have been, but for the predicted impact on traffic, a good addition to Santa Monica.

Adding parking that makes traffic worse only plays into the hands of people who oppose all growth except the building of parking structures.

We need to encourage growth that attracts to downtown people who are less likely to drive there, including locals for whom the bus is a viable option, or who live close enough to walk, and long distance tourists who stay in nearby hotels.

We can help local businesses grow without making traffic worse by building more housing downtown and within Santa Monica's natural hinterland while at the same time not encouraging people to drive downtown.

The next meeting of the Task Force will be Thursday, September 6, in the Ken Edwards Center, at 6:30.

Another meeting to watch for is Wednesday night's Planning Commission meeting when the Open Space Element of the City's General Plan, and its Environmental Impact Report, is on the agenda. This plan has been in the works for years, and will update the a part of the General Plan that was last revised in 1973.

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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