DOWNTOWN — Aiming to cut down on the number of drivers cruising Downtown and nearby residential streets in search of parking, City Hall is considering getting into the valet business.
While still in the early stages, city officials are studying whether or not a centralized valet system with multiple drop-off and pick-up points would be feasible in Downtown, where there are currently 27 city-licensed, but privately-operated valet locations serving hotels and restaurants.
The Bayside District Corp. Land and Asset Committee seemed interested in exploring the idea earlier this month, but said many details still need to be considered before giving its stamp of approval. Bayside is a public-private management company that oversees Downtown and would most likely run the valet program if approved by the City Council. Bayside is funded by an assessment approved by property owners.
Business interests have talked about creating a valet program for years, however, nothing has materialized because running one is expensive, experts said, and Downtown poses many logistical problems, such as where to store the cars and where to locate valet stands that will not interfere with the flow of traffic but make it convenient for shoppers.
“We got some positive, encouraging feedback that the program is worthy of further analysis so we’ll do that and come back [to Bayside],” said Miriam Mack, City Hall’s director of economic development.
A study on parking in Downtown recommended a centralized valet system that could include six drop-off and pick-up stations, charging customers around $7. A valet program would have to rely heavily on private parking spaces not utilized by the public, spaces that may already be used by private valet companies.
City officials said the centralized valet program is not intended to take away business from private valet companies.
“In theory there are a lot of things that can be cited as a benefit of a valet program,” Mack said. “Certainly customer convenience would be one and then the idea that this would reduce traffic and give people an alternative to circling blocks, which is important” to cutting down on air pollution.
Mack said valets could also open more spaces in public parking structures.
“There are a lot of compelling reasons to do it, but it also has to be profitable and a self-sustaining operation.”
Several cities in the region have a centralized valet program, many of which are subsidized by a business improvement district like Bayside. Old Pasadena has one, as does Beverly Hills, Manhattan Beach and Culver City. Some operate only during peak hours and charge around $7.
Even though the idea is still in the infant stages, there are already critics who feel the program will fail or end up costing City Hall or Bayside big bucks with little in return. Just to break even with six valet stations, there would have to be 411 cars parked per night at $7 per car, a number that experts in the field feel is impossible to reach, even in an area as popular as Downtown with the Third Street Promenade.
“I just don’t see it working,” said Chuck Pick of Chuck’s Parking Service, which specializes in providing valet service for private events. “The city will end up having to pay a lot for this. It is expensive, labor intensive and you have to ask yourself, who is going to want to pay this? People would much rather feed the meter. That area of Santa Monica doesn’t have the real high-end stores where people are going to drop thousands of dollars and not mind paying $15 to valet their car. I just don’t see it.”
Those who are in the parking business said City Hall needs to decide where it will park the cars, if it will be feasible to locate them nearby so that drivers aren’t waiting longer than five to seven minutes, how many valet stations to have, and if valets would be paid a living wage.
If a plan is proposed, a key part will be ownership or having some control over the parking spaces, said Ken Kaufman, owner of the Rush Street Restaurant in Culver City and president of the Culver City Downtown Business Association, which runs a centralized valet program. Kaufman said it is critical to have control over the spaces because it gives a business improvement district or City Hall leverage if it is not happy with the valet company running the program.
Culver City had similar issues as Santa Monica, mainly parking structures that were often full or near capacity during peak hours, frustrating visitors. Drivers were parking in residential areas adjacent to Culver City’s revitalized Downtown, which led to complaints from homeowners. Kaufman said the valet program has been successful, although it is heavily subsidized.
“To this point, the volume is not high enough yet,” to break even, he said. “But it is important to the Downtown area that his program exists.”
It’s all about customer service and creating a pleasant experience for visitors, Kaufman said.
“My place, for example, we are open until 2 a.m. and many are people in their 20s or 30s, many of them young women who you don’t want to have crossing the streets to the parking structures at that time of night, so it’s a safety issue, too,” he said. “Culver City is a clean, and very safe environment. It’s an area people want to come to and in order to keep it convenient, we have to subsidize.”
A parking study is being conducted, Kaufman said, so he will soon have a better idea of the valet program’s success. He would not release any information on how many cars are parked per month and the revenue generated. The first valet company contracted by the merchants’ association resigned because it was operating at a deficit and believed it would not make a profit in the foreseeable future.
To be somewhat successful, Kaufman, a Santa Monica resident, said developing a strong partnership between the business district, the valet company and City Hall is key.
Kathleen Rawson, executive director of Bayside, summed it up best.
“We are pretty far from making a recommendation,” she said. “We have a lot of work to do.”