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College Parking Meters Wait for Green Light

By Gene Williams
Staff Writer

February 22 -- “If it’s free, it’s for me,” Maggie McCain said sitting in her silver sports vehicle, the engine idling, transmission in park, watching and waiting for a parking space to open up.

For 25-year-old McCain and hundreds of Santa Monica College students like her, parking on Pearl and 16th streets near the college is as good as it gets.

McCain says she usually has to wait on the street about 15 minutes for a space. But it’s worth it. Not only is it near class, it’s also one of the last free and unregulated areas in the city to park your car.

But it isn’t likely to stay that way. City officials say they will eventually put the brakes on the students’ free ride.

“It’s not good for the City to have a large free parking lot available to anyone anywhere,” City transportation manager Lucy Dyke explained.

And the City Council agrees. They voted for parking meters on those streets in late 2002.

The City put in some 150 posts and meter heads more than a year ago. But the coin-operated mechanisms to activate them have yet to be installed.

Dyke said she was told to hold off after the college started complaining. Students say the spaces should be kept unregulated because most of the surrounding area is closed to them by residents-only preferential parking permits.

Dyke said there is little doubt that the meters will get switched on, it’s just a question of when and under what terms.

“The question has to do with timing and mitigating whatever impact there is at the college and on its neighbors,” Dyke explained.

In the meantime, the issue is getting hashed out “at the most senior levels of the City and the college,” she said

College officials are confident that a compromise will be reached.

“The City is being very cooperative,” said Tom Donner, the college’s interim president.

“They’re trying to make this thing work. They recognize that there is a difference of opinion between the students and the City.”

When the neighborhoods got preferential parking in the 1990s, the City agreed to leave much of the street along the south and west sides of campus “unrestricted,” Donner said.

But whether or not the meters count as a restriction is not clear, he conceded.

“If it’s a short-term meter, then I think it will be a disruption to students and faculty,” Donner said. “But if it’s a ten-hour meter, then I think the student argument that it’s too short a time will go away.

“Then it will be the question of if it’s 75 cents an hour (the standard fare for metered parking in the city) or if it’s some kind of reduced rate,” Donner said, adding that he doesn’t think it’s right to charge students too much.

“This is not the appropriate place to generate revenue because the students here have the least ability to pay,” he said.

The City’s transportation manager defended the purpose of the meters but didn’t go into specifics about rates and time limits or a possible deal with the college.

“There are some very good reasons for having meters there,” Dyke said. “Introducing meters and time limits will really benefit many of the college students as well as people in the neighborhoods.”

Unregulated free parking adds to congestion by encouraging students to stop their cars in the street or circle the block while waiting for a space, she said.

Dyke suggested that the meters would make parking easier for many students because the spaces would turn over more regularly, while students seeking long-term parking might find it easier and cheaper to take the bus or college shuttle to school.

But Donner sees things differently. He warned that traffic around the college would get worse if meters turn the spaces over too often. He also pointed out that the college’s shuttle parking – which keeps hundreds of cars away from campus – faces an uncertain future.

“It’s not easy to find a place to put shuttle parking,” Donner explained. “Everyone says, Shuttle! Shuttle! But not in my neighborhood.”

The college recently lost its long-time shuttle lot at Santa Monica Airport so the City could break ground for a new park. The school had hoped to replace it by building a parking structure nearby at its new Bundy Campus, but neighbors objected, Donner said.

Shuttle parking is now at a beach lot south of the pier. But it will have to be out by summer. In the meantime the school is hoping to find a permanent site somewhere along Olympic Boulevard.

SMC is trying to reach “parking self-sufficiency” within the next ten years, a top college official told the City Council earlier this month. (see story)

Ideas include a possible underground parking structure beneath the college’s Corsair Field. But it will be a long time before that happens, if ever.

Right now the college is a few hundred spaces short of what it needs on campus, college officials say. Like other institutions in the area, the school relies on street parking to take up the slack.

Still sitting in her car waiting for a parking space, Maggie McCain said she wouldn’t mind putting 75 cents in a meter to park for an hour in front of the school.

But most days she needs to be on campus for five hours at a time. That’s $3.75 and that’s more than she’d be willing to spend.

“I probably wouldn’t park here,” She said. “I would go into the residential free parking” either around Woodlawn Cemetery or on Oak Street “and walk 15 minutes to class.”

But until the meters get switched on she’ll cruise along 16th and Pearl streets in hopes of scoring a free space near school.

“You keep coming back because you might get lucky,” McCain explained. “It’s like the lottery. Sometimes it might be worth it.”

Donner said he hopes to bring the City and students together for more talks in the near future. The trick is getting everyone’s calendars to line up, a task that’s been complicated by personnel changes at both institutions, he said.

Recently, Lamont Ewell took over as Santa Monica’s new city manager, and the college elected a new student government; Donner will step down in a few days to make way for Dr. Chui Tsang, the next college president.

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