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A car drives into the underground parking structure for the First United Methodist Church on 11th Street on Tuesday afternoon. Residents in Wilmont want the church to share their parking spaces with residents. (photo by Brandon Wise)

WILMONT — As the lack of parking spaces continue to haunt residents living in perhaps the most densely-packed neighborhood in the city, the focus is now turning to a church-owned garage to provide some relief.

Located across from the Santa Monica First United Methodist Church at 11th Street is a three-level structure that holds slightly less than 300 spaces, approximately one-third of which are tandem, all that sit rather unoccupied during hours when the religious institution is not in operation, residents have said.

“We have no parking places at all and all those spaces sit virtually empty,” Jeanne Dodson, who chairs the Wilshire-Montana Neighborhood Coalition, said.

The lack of available parking spaces in the neighborhood, which is bounded by Wilshire Boulevard and Montana Avenue from the ocean to 21st Street, has long been a bane for residents, the problem that year after year tops the list of the biggest issues in a survey of coalition members. It’s a challenge that many attribute to the high concentration of apartments and condominiums and that others believe is exacerbated by some residents using their garages for storage — a touchy topic on its own.

The solution that Dodson has presented is to arrange for a shared parking arrangement between residents and owners of larger lots and garages after business hours, bringing in a third party to handle disputes.

The operator of the garages could determine when and where the residents could park, establishing specific hours and designating locations. Residents who purchase permits would be assigned a card that would be scanned upon entry each time, notifying the operator when the cars are there illegally. The owner could also enter an agreement with a tow company to take care of cars that are not supposed to be in the garage during certain hours.

The shared parking proposal presents several challenges for the First United Methodist Church, which outside of its worship services, offers its facilities for various non-affiliated programs, hosting more than a dozen 12-step group meetings, the Boy Scouts and Musica Angelica concerts, said Patricia Farris, the senior minister. The church also lends its garages on occasion for other local religious houses that need it for overflow parking.

The irregular schedule is what makes the shared-parking idea difficult to adopt, Farris said.

“The availability would be quite limited and not consistent day to day and week to week,” she said. “We certainly understand the issues and the concerns and part of our challenge at this point is that we make it available so much for the community already that we got people in and out … during the evening.”

She added that the church does not want to get into a situation where the permit holders are inconvenienced by having to move their cars when a funeral or other unanticipated event is scheduled.

“We want to be cooperative and yet we are really interested in working out something that fits our mission in the community,” she said.

The proposal is currently being evaluated by Annette Colfax, City Hall’s new transportation demand manager who has been following up on leads of possible shared-parking opportunities.

Colfax said that church officials also have concerns about liability and security. The plan that Dodson presented would require that residents waive liability.

The one issue that appears to be shared by businesses that have been approached about the shared parking option is the hours of operation.

City Hall recently sent out a survey to Montana Avenue merchants, receiving responses to 22 of them. Several did identify some parking spaces that might be available during certain hours in the evening and Sundays.

“There are businesses that are connected to small amounts of parking that is not used during certain hours, but which hours it’s not used vary depending on whether the business is a boutique or a restaurant,” Colfax said. “Some of the businesses share parking amongst themselves and use it during different hours.

“There is definitely potential to identify parking that can be shared with residents but each solution has to be very individually crafted.”

Shared parking has worked relatively well in Long Beach where more than 1,200 spaces have been created for residents since Councilmember Suja Lowenthal in 2006 made a motion to create a community parking program. Approximately half of the spaces are from city-owned garages. Private operators are allowed to set their own rates.

Dodson said that even though the church has its own garage, some of its congregants still park on the street.

“It’s more convenient for (them) to park on the street and take our parking places rather than use the parking places they have available to them,” she said.

She suggested that a portion of the garage could be set aside for the residents, perhaps the third level.

Some relief could come from the campus enhancement project at St. Monica Catholic Church, which is proposing to build a new Community Center and subterranean parking garage that will have approximately 270 spaces.

Jason Farmer, spokesman for St. Monica, said that the staff is currently in the process of reviewing its plan to increase on-site parking and is open to considering opening neighbor access to its facility, depending on availability after meetings and operational needs of the church and two schools.

“As always, we are open to talking with our valued, long-time neighbors,” he said.

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