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Major Step for Parking Plan

By Jorge Casuso

October 10 -- Plan carefully, get Downtown merchants and officials on board from the get-go and be sure to include open-air trams to shuttle visitors to their Downtown destinations.

Those were the key suggestions Bayside officials made when asked to discuss the draft Environmental Impact Report (EIR) City planners rolled out last month for an ambitious plan to add 1,712 parking spaces Downtown by 2015.

The plan, which was approved in concept by the City Council three years ago, calls for tearing down and rebuilding three of the six Downtown public parking structures. A total of 712 spaces would be added in the larger, new structures, and three structures would be upgraded and retrofitted.

The plan also adds approximately 1,000 spaces in two new structures slated to go up in the area bounded by Fourth and Sixth courts between Wilshire Boulevard and Colorado Avenue. The new structures could be used by monthly parkers, opening up the structures near the Third Street Promenade for short-term visitors.

“I want it to be planned out really well and get Bayside involved early,” said Bayside District Chair Bill Tucker, who was a member of the Downtown Parking Task Force that hammered out an early version of the plan. “It has to be planned in a very rigorous fashion. It has to involve merchants early.

“It’s going to be a long-term project, so we want to think about it well ahead to make sure the customers know how to navigate the area,” Tucker said.

Bayside Vice Chair John Warfel agreed. “It’s got to be very well planned, and the City has to stick to its plan once construction begins,” said Warfel, who also sat on the Parking Task Force.

Unlike the typical EIR, which identifies the environmental impacts generated by a specific project, the draft EIR for the Downtown Public Parking Program analyzes the impacts of more than half a dozen construction projects that will be built over the next ten years.

“What’s unusual is that it’s so far into the future,” said Ellen Gelbard, assistant director of the City’s Planning Department. “It’s a strategy, a combination of upgrading and adding spaces and how to do that over time and mitigate it. It is a strategy or a program that has a lot of series of things that will be happening, as opposed to a specific project.”

While a specific project normally triggers quantifiable long-term impacts on an area – such as traffic and parking – the Downtown structures, unlike a commercial or residential project, don’t generate additional car trips in and of themselves, planning officials said.

“All the parking is for the growth” projected for the Bayside, Gelbard said, adding that the EIR assumes every project in the planning pipeline is built. “We’ve assumed everything … It’s a worst-case analysis. We’re making worst case assumptions and analyzing those assumptions.”

The EIR outlines a construction schedule that would start next year with the retrofitting of structure 4 and end with the completion of one of the two new structures in 2015. Gelbard called the schedule “a little bit aggressive” and noted that each project must be designed, engineered and bid out before construction can begin.

“The schedule only allows a year for design,” Gelbard said, adding that the design phase will likely take 18 months. In addition, she said, the City must “analyze impacts after each phase to make sure there is adequate parking for the next one.”

To ensure all issues are addressed, the City, Gelbard said, “may have to do a more fine grain review as each project comes up.”

Bayside officials are urging the City to prepare for construction impacts early. Before construction starts, Tucker suggests installing “smart signs” to direct motorists to the nearest available parking.

Planning officials have earmarked the 900-space parking structure going up at the Civic Center, as well as some of the 600 spaces at the new Public Library, scheduled to open in January, to accommodate some of the monthly parking permit holders, leaving the spaces closest to the Downtown core open for visitors.

“We can move monthly parkers from a number of parking structures to the Civic Center,” said Lucy Dyke, the City’s transportation planning manager. “We’ll have all new parking spaces (at the library), and we anticipate there will be more parking spaces than the short-term demand.”

While the library will likely accommodate those with monthly parking permits for the long haul, the Civic Center will be available only as replacement parking until 2010, according to the EIR. By then, one of the two new structures outside the Downtown core will have been completed.

Bayside officials are strongly urging the City to make sure the structures around the Promenade have ample space for visitors.

“One of our big concerns is that the parking be convenient, particularly for retail shoppers and people here for entertainment,” Warfel said. “We have to maintain a sufficient supply of parking for shoppers, visitors and workers who need access to their cars during the day.”

Relocating monthly permit holders from the structures near the Downtown core can be done by staff without council approval, unless it requires pricing changes, Dyke said.

“It’s pretty easy to move people from monthly parking Downtown to farther areas,” Dyke said. “The City doesn’t have to pay anything extra, so it can be done at the staff level. We do it as part of our ongoing operations.

“There are some policy issues the City Council may want to consider, including using pricing or other kinds of incentives to get people (with monthly permits) to move,” Dyke said.

To encourage parking in structures away from the Downtown core, officials are pushing for a shuttle service that captures the outdoor, festive atmosphere that has become a trademark of the Bayside.

“We need an incentive program, a little carrot,” Tucker said. The shuttles should run frequently and have music and “should be something people enjoy, part of the experience Downtown.”

“We don’t need a typical bus system,” Warfel said, noting that the rides are too short. “It must be easy on, easy off.”

The City Council has directed the Big Blue Bus staff to look at how best to provide a shuttle service, Dyke said. But she cautioned that “a new shuttle service will require the City Council to do something.”

If the Council chooses to move ahead with a shuttle, it should act quickly, Bayside officials said. “The tram system needs to be at the beginning,” Warfel said. “It was always an afterthought.”

“You have to have fun shuttles up and running before we start tearing down the structures,” Tucker agreed.

Another concern is the timing of the construction with other major projects planned for the Downtown area, such as the Pier ramp.

“There are coordination issues with City projects, and the City doesn’t have control over private projects which go ahead as they are approved,” Warfel said. “There’s more happening. Not as much as there has been, but there’s more coming.”

“We have to make sure we’re not doing this at the same time as other big projects are going on,” Tucker said.

All in all, Bayside officials are encouraged that the plan has taken a major step from concept to reality.

“We are certainly glad to see that the City is working diligently towards revamping and expanding the parking resources Downtown,” Warfel said.
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