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More Parking, More Parking

By Frank J. Gruber

"[T]he more space that is provided cars in cities, the greater becomes the need for use of cars, and hence for still more space for them." -- From Jane Jacobs' The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961; 1992 Vintage paperback edition, page 351).

At last week's meeting, the City Council voted 5-1 to approve the full Downtown parking program of 1,712 spaces, which may include building 1,000 new spaces in two new structures, probably on Fifth Street. Kevin McKeown voted no and Pam O'Connor was absent. (see story)

Council member Ken Genser was the prime mover. He is, of course, recently back on the dais after kidney transplant surgery. I am happy to report that Council member Genser looks great. One thing for sure -- he didn't have to give up any brain cells to get his new kidney, nor any of his persuasive powers.

Mr. Genser managed to persuade his colleagues -- not that they necessarily needed persuading -- that they were not, in fact, approving anything; not "a single parking space." He said that any actions the City might take to implement the plan would require further action by the council, including public hearings.

Council member Bobby Shriver, in particular, pleaded for assurances that the council was not creating a "slippery slope" that would lead to building more parking before development justified it or was in fact approved by the City in the land use update.

Was the vote a mere rhetorical gesture? Funny, but in its first paragraph the staff report the council members presumably read said that by passing the plan, the council would authorize staff to proceed with "acquisition and design of new perimeter parking resources." That sounds like action to me.

But Council will hold more public hearings before acquiring new "perimeter parking resources," i.e., land, right? Well, maybe not. The Council likes to use its power to make decisions about buying real estate in closed session. Recall the done-in-closed-session-deal to buy the RAND property at the Civic Center.

We're talking serious money. Back in 2001, the Keyser Marston report on financing the parking plan said that land for two new structures would cost $9 million; surely the figure has gone up in the recent boom.

Where will the money come from? When the City officials and Downtown business people who comprised the Downtown Parking Task Force developed the parking plan they promised that the City would use earthquake redevelopment money only to retrofit or rebuild the old structures and that any new structures would be built with revenue bond money secured with income from other sources, such as new assessments or increased parking revenues.

But so far no one from either the City or the Bayside District has made a serious argument that those funds will be available. Even the staff report said that if the Council approved the program, "it should direct staff to prepare a funding plan, identifying any proposed fee increases or City subsidies." But no one mentioned that last week.

One of Mr. Genser's arguments was that we needed to buy the land now, "because they aren't making any more." True enough, but that doesn't mean the cost of land will necessarily go up. It went down in the 90s after the last boom, and it may go down again after this one.

Mr. Genser also made the point that the roughly 500,000 square feet of new development that would justify the 1,000 new spaces at the plan's parking ratio of 2.1 spaces per 1,000 square feet (in addition to the 340,000 square feet of development that would be serviced by the 712 new spaces in rebuilt old structures -- development that hasn't happened yet) was not much development when spread over the sixteen blocks of the Downtown shared parking district, over ten years.

In that I agree with Mr. Genser. Contrary to NIMBY fears, another 840,000 square feet would not be that much development for the parking zone, and if the new development was in the form of new residences, it would be a boon for Downtown with little or no impact on traffic.

But no one presented the City Council with evidence that anywhere near this amount of development would occur in the parking zone any time soon. Last I heard -- in the workshops for the Downtown design standards -- even though the Promenade is zoned for the highest heights Downtown, no one is building there now because one and two story retail uses turn out to be more valuable than offices or apartments.

Most of the development going on Downtown, as Council member McKeown pointed out, is outside the parking zone and must provide its own parking. Not only that, but developers of apartments and condos will tell you that their customers like to have their parking on site, so they have market reasons to provide their own parking.

Why should property owners outside the current parking zone agree to pay an assessment for parking they have already built? Mr. Genser alluded to an idea that would have been good ten years ago -- using the new structures as shared parking for development outside the current parking zone -- but that opportunity is largely gone.

Whether these parking structures can support themselves is not a trivial issue. Do the words Hollywood & Highland mean anything to anyone? The City of LA took a bath on the $80 million parking structure it built for that development.

City staff told the council that the City needed to build at least one new structure, regardless of need, to make sure that there were sufficient spaces so that there was never a reduction during the rebuilding process. But the need to use a new structure for this purpose arises only because the parking task force declared arbitrarily that the hundreds of new spaces at the new library were beyond walking distance of the Promenade and therefore could not be counted as transition spaces (beyond a brief initial period when the first old structure was being retrofitted).

The new library parking lot Saturday afternoon. (Photo by Frank Gruber)

But why not count the library spaces, which are only three short east-west blocks from the Promenade, and save the tens of millions of dollars it will cost to build a structure? The City is willing to count the spaces at the new Civic Center during the transition, why not the library spaces? And there would be no need for an expensive shuttle bus, either: the City could give passes for the Number One bus, which runs every ten minutes on Santa Monica Boulevard, to anyone who parks at the library.

Santa Monica politicians like to think of themselves as ever vigilant not to subsidize business. They don't pander to the Wal-Marts and Targets of the world like Antelope Valley politicians hungry for sales tax. They don't coddle the Dreamworks of this world like LA politicians hungry for jobs.

Some council members even fret about how terrible it is that the Promenade has been "corporatized" by mall stores, even as they love to spend the sales tax money.

When it comes to traffic, our council members are messengers from God. They will oppose a school or a concert hall, not to mention needed housing, if a few misinformed residents tell them, or a bizarre traffic analysis indicates, that traffic would get worse. I remember when the City made the YMCA add a left-turn signal to a traffic light on Lincoln Boulevard.

As for sustainability, holy, holy, holy is our City. We'll subsidize solar, hydrogen, biomass, whatever, to save the planet.

But when it comes to parking, forget it. To approve the parking plan, the City Council ignored EIR-predicted significant impacts to fourteen intersections. I hope the Y doesn't find out about that.

Look, I buy most of my clothes at the Gap, and I don't worry too much about what silly things EIRs say about traffic. So maybe I shouldn't care if the City uses taxes that should go to pay for schools, the justice system, jails, public health, etc., to subsidize parking for "mall stores" and their landlords, ignoring the fact that the parking will encourage more driving, causing more congestion -- not to mention the global warming.

But then, the council members merely reflect their pampered constituents, who incongruously demand more parking and less traffic at the same time.

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