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The property that Grigsby's Automotive sits on may soon become a mixed-use development. The lot is located at Broadway and Fourth Street. (photo by Daniel Archuleta)

DOWNTOWN — Santa Monica officials may pride themselves on forward-thinking parking policies, but what’s good for traffic congestion may not be good for the bottom line.

The development team responsible for an apartment complex proposed for 401 Broadway found that out the hard way when attempts to find financing for the 56-unit mixed-use building fell flat over one of the design’s biggest local selling points — its lack of on-site parking.

The apartment complex was billed as transit-oriented development because of its proximity to the future Exposition Light Rail Line. Its mix of tiny studio units with a smattering of one bedroom apartments was meant to lend itself to young professionals without families and, designers hoped, without cars.

Planning commissioners and members of the City Council approved the project, in no small part because they felt that it fulfilled the goals embodied in the 2010 Land Use and Circulation Element, or LUCE, to reduce the number of trips and amount of traffic in Downtown.

“This is an effort to achieve some sustainability goals. We don’t want, or it would be great not to have, those vehicles Downtown because it would be lowering the vehicle miles traveled, which in turn is something important to our LUCE goals,” said Mayor Richard Bloom of the program at the Dec. 13, 2011 City Council meeting.

As of May 24, 2012, it was clear that the vision had failed.

That was the day that the project team filed a development agreement amendment seeking to build an automated parking facility underneath the proposed building to provide at least 50 spaces for the complex.

The site’s location and target demographic makes it uniquely capable of fulfilling the council’s LUCE goals and reducing the number of trips and cars Downtown, said David Forbes Hibbert, the architect currently working on the parking structure.

“That all sounds very good, but it doesn’t sound too good to investors,” Hibbert said.

When push came to shove, the building couldn’t get financing without parking included on-site, something that the developer was trying to avoid for purely logistical reasons.

The site itself, where Grigsby’s Automotive currently resides, is too small at 7,500 square feet to build conventional subterranean parking where tenants park and retrieve their cars themselves.

Instead, it will have to use an automated system that actually brings the car to its driver.

There’s only one other example in Santa Monica, a 385-car structure that serves the Santa Monica-UCLA Health Center. That structure, the first fully automated version on the West Coast, is half the size of a conventional structure with the same number of spaces.

That system works using a crane, which is too large and too expensive for the development at 401 Broadway, Hibbert said.

“Our system, assuming we get this all worked out, will be a single elevator lift that takes the car down, turns it around and runs it on a conveyor belt into a space,” Hibbert said.

Even so, the garage may have to extend under the public sidewalk and possibly under Broadway, said Steve Mizokami, the planner working on the project.

The project represents a problem for planners who pushed forward the idea of reducing parking in the Downtown district.

The site was the first in the post-LUCE era to fully embrace the idea of divorcing parking from tenancy, however, and it did not work.

Councilmember Terry O’Day, who supported the project in part because of its lack of parking, believes it’s a matter of time before financiers fall in line with new thought in city planning.

“Certainly, it’s a new paradigm for Southern California and lenders are not always at the vanguard of community design and trends,” O’Day said.

Plans for the new garage are still in their nascent stages, and it will take many months before it can go to the City Council for final approval. If they do not find another solution, it will get a cold reception from O’Day.

“I, for one, will be disappointed that they are feeling the need to build parking there,” he said. “It’s not my vision for how we could build the Downtown and encourage walkability and reduce traffic impacts.”

ashley@smdp.com