The City Council approved $105,000 contract Tuesday to design digital signs for 18 city streets and seven parking garages to help visitors quickly find parking spaces when they come to the city. The signs will be integrated with the City’s parking availability system and will display messages directing motorists from the freeway-off ramps to available lots.

The signs will also display custom messages during special events, planned closures or unexpected incidents. They are similar to the 21 digital signs the city installed in 2014 to direct drivers to open beach parking.

“The beach signs have been successful in directing people to available parking in the different beach lots so they don’t drive around going from one lot to another and realize it’s full,” Mayor Ted Winterer said. The new signs will expand the program to the downtown area near the busy Third Street Promenade. “The theory is they will reduce traffic congestion.”

Construction of the signs will likely happen Spring 2019. In the meantime, parking revenue from city-owned garages was down seven percent last year, as more visitors take the Expo Line, Ubers and Lyfts to Santa Monica beaches, restaurants, and shopping.

The Council received a flood of mail on the consent calendar item for the new signs, asking elected leaders to postpone the parking project until the Civic Center Sports Field is completed. The copy-and-pasted letter signed by dozens of Santa Monica High School parents and activists accuses city staff of undermining the field by potentially using the signs to manipulate an upcoming parking study for the California Coastal Commission. City Manager Rick Cole says he has been told by the state agency the field may not be approved without a detailed study looking at parking south of the Pier.

“There is concern from the Civic Center Sports Field supporters this will impact the sports field by directing cars to park at the civic center during the parking study and afterward under the local coastal plan,” said Ann Thanawalla, member of the parks and recreation task force and a fervent critic of City Hall.

However, the parking study is on track to be finished by this summer, according to Winterer and City Manager Rick Cole, who insists the two projects have nothing to do with each other since the signs will be constructed eight months after the parking study is completed.

Cole said he expects to submit plans for the Civic Center Field to the Coastal Commission by October of this year. Because the field will replace parking spaces near the ocean, the Commission must approve plans and they may not limit public access to the coast.

“The concern was raised that staff is seeking to undermine the civic center multi-use field and I just want to for the record clarify that staff is doing everything we can in every department to expedite the completion of the civic center multi-use sports field,” Cole said. Cole has faced criticism from a group of parents who remain upset the city submitted plans for a City Hall expansion and a nearby preschool before the field, which reduced parking in the civic center.

In response, the city funded the project before seeking approval from the state agency to quell community skepticism. However, the planning department may have inadvertently fanned the flames when they released the Local Coastal Plan (LCP) earlier this year, which did not include plans for a sports field for Santa Monica High School.

“I heard that feedback,” Cole said. “I thought that was such an obviously valid comment that I worked with our planning staff to immediately revise the draft and we issued those changes (Monday) and they have been widely distributed.”

“That’s the value of having public input,” Winterer said.

The LCP puts more emphasis on public transportation and bicycle access near the city’s three-mile stretch of beach to reduce dependence on large parking areas. The plan also looks at the impact of climate change and rising sea levels on Santa Monica beaches. Once approved, the LCP will transfer the coastal development permitting rights from the state agency to the local government.

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