The owners of the Yahoo! Center are asking the City Council to allow them to continue leasing more than 1,000 parking spaces to people like Saint John’s Health Center and local car dealers, something they have been doing illegally under the terms of their development agreement for at least a decade. They say they have enough spaces to satisfy demand from their tenants and their employees and will be able to lease those spaces without creating a parking crunch.
The Daily Press is in favor of leasing because shared-parking is a key component of the Land Use and Circulation Element, a planning document that will dictate development in Santa Monica for at least 20 years. However, we will only support the amendment to the development agreement if residents get something substantial in return (we’re talking cash money) and the council is provided with estimates on how much the owners stand to make from the parking so it can determine the amount of benefits the city should receive. Currently, the owners of the Yahoo! Center have yet to make that information public and it doesn’t look like they will.
The developers of the Yahoo! Center entered into a development agreement in 1981. In exchange for higher, denser buildings, the developers were required to build underground parking and provided the community with a childcare center, a 3.5-acre park, community rooms, nearly $3 million worth of art and social service benefits through park and community room maintenance, a traffic signal, street lighting and turn lane improvements, 51 units of affordable housing, and more than $2 million for City Hall’s housing fund.
The center was also not allowed to charge tenants for parking, something the community wanted out of fear that if employees had to pay, they would park on residential streets. Since the developers want to remove that community benefit and charge new tenants, the community should get something in return. The center has proposed a pretty substantial transportation demand management program which includes things like carpooling, convenient parking for cyclists, and reimbursements for taking public transit.
While all those things are great, they are not enough. LUCE will require, and many employers already do, transportation demand management programs, so offering that as a community benefit carries little weight with us. The center should be doing it regardless. We want cash, perhaps a certain percentage of parking revenues on top of the parking tax already collected, which could be used to pay for the Big Blue Bus, shuttles to ferry Saint John’s employees to the hospital, more bike lanes or other transportation improvements to help combat traffic congestion.
We believe cash is the way to go because it is obvious that City Hall cannot be trusted when it comes to monitoring development agreement compliance. We’ve seen it with the Dorchester, we’ve seen it with the Arboretum and Saint John’s, which is trying to get out of building a parking structure, a more than $30 million investment. Former planning director Suzanne Frick dropped the ball, as did the members of the City Council, who failed to properly manage these agreements. If it wasn’t for current Planning Director Eileen Fogarty digging into these agreements, who knows how long City Hall would have turned a blind eye.
Cash is best because city officials seem to really pay attention to the almighty dollar. For example, while the owners of the Yahoo! Center were illegally leasing parking, they were paying a parking tax to City Hall for at least seven years. So, City Hall was accepting money from an illegal operation (under the development agreement) and either didn’t recognize it or decided to let it continue because cash rules everything around us. It’s pretty ridiculous when looking back on the situation. Apparently, no one in planning was communicating with finance.
With that in mind, let’s make it simple for City Hall. Keep your eyes on the money. Let the Yahoo! Center lease its surplus parking, with the caveat that they must stop if demand rises, and have it pay the parking tax plus a community benefit fee that is restricted for transit/transportation uses. That would be best. Come on, council. Do your job, hold people accountable and stick up for the residents. We’re pretty sure that if residents were doing something illegal for 10 years, they wouldn’t get a hearing, more like a form letter saying cease and desist or pay a major fine (remember the hedges). Treat the Yahoo! Center the same way. Don’t back down, be stern and let’s get a benefit that truly helps the community, not another community room or more public art.