Despite my Aug. 8 column about proposed parking fee increases in Downtown last Tuesday, City Council (by a six to one vote) conceptually approved a raft of recommendations and asked staff for a "plan of action" that will eventually make it much more expensive to park in the Bayside area — despite record unemployment and a recession.
The goal is to better utilize resources and make Downtown parking more efficient in garages around the Third Street Promenade. A proposal was presented to council by Walker Parking Consultants — the same firm I wrote about previously that claimed the cost of parking Downtown was “under priced.” Nevertheless, City Council endorsed recommendations to raise hourly rates for on-street parking to $1.50 and then $2 per hour and expand meter operation hours from 6 p.m. until 10 p.m.
Other recommendations were to keep the first hour of parking free in city garages, charge $1 beginning with the second hour of parking (now free) and $2 for each additional hour. The daily maximum rate would jump to $9 from $7, the evening flat rate would increase to $5 from $3 and the monthly rate would jump to $121 from $82.50.
City Council seems to ignore the fact that parking expense is a factor when deciding where to dine, see a movie or shop. And, there’s also the pressure to stop spending and depart quickly to avoid extra parking fees which also reduces revenues — a condition confirmed by an employee of Easton’s Gym on the promenade who said increased parking fees could exceed the cost of the gym’s membership and damage his business.
Councilman Richard Bloom stated that people come here because it’s attractive despite traffic and difficult parking. He didn’t see increased parking fees interfering with Downtown’s dynamics. Bloom better hope he’s right. If the Downtown dynamic does change, as fellow councilman Bob Holbrook said, “We’ll become another Westwood Village." Twenty years ago Westwood was an exciting regional attraction and is now pretty much a “ghost town.”
Only Bob Holbrook gets it. He predicted higher pricing would discourage folks from coming to Downtown Santa Monica when they can park cheaper elsewhere. Holbrook urged keeping the two hours of free parking and was against raising the evening flat rate because, “Then, I can still go to Santa Monica … go to a movie and dinner and the parking doesn’t knock me out of the picture.” Holbrook knows which side of the bread the butter is on.
Mayor Ken Genser justified parking rate increases with a convoluted argument that if parking costs increased with inflation over the years, parking would be much more expensive than the modest increases proposed, suggesting that council was doing us all a favor.
Another strategy is to stop Downtown employees who hog spaces and shuffle their vehicles in and out of parking garages every two hours to avoid paying. Implementing a “one hour free” model makes it impractical for Bayside workers to play musical cars but causes other problems.
What about raising rates for thousands of minimum wage employees who may have to pay $121 (or work 12-plus hours each month) to park reasonably close to their jobs? Walker’s proposal noted that the most expensive parking is in more remote parking garages under the new library and at the Civic Center. In fact, Library parking is so “overpriced,” few park there. Council members liked the idea of lowering monthly rates in outlying garages for employees to open more spots in promenade-adjacent garages for the public. So do I.
Councilman Kevin McKeown said, “I don’t think we are imposing a tremendous hardship on employees as long as we provide some place where it’s reasonable for them to park. We’re really going to be helping places where they work to have more customers come in because traffic won’t be so congested … Underpricing parking is subsidizing driving and thus increasing traffic. It appears that’s what we’ve been doing to ourselves Downtown."
But, McKeown and his colleagues are assuming Downtown parking is “underpriced.” My Aug. 8 column compared parking costs in nearby malls and shopping districts (not just the priciest locations that Walker cited) and found Santa Monica is actually “about the middle” and definitely not “underpriced” or “inexpensive” compared to many competing destinations. Also, assumptions that “underpriced” parking encourages more people to drive and increases traffic may not be completely accurate, but overpriced parking will definitely reduce Downtown traffic as visitors will go elsewhere.
Downtown is the financial engine that drives the city, so what happens if more of us go to Century City, Marina del Rey, Westside Pavilion and beyond? Then, how will local businesses and their employees do financially? And, city revenues? Forget sustainability. Driving will actually increase as people head for more competitive venues away from Downtown.
Some politicians need to get a clue.
Bill Bauer can be reached at email@example.com