John Moynahan and Jennifer Shepp use the stairs at Parking Structure 4 on Second Street on Tuesday morning. Bayside District Corp. has hired private firms to pressure washing Downtown structures regularly. (photo by Brandon Wise)

DOWNTOWN — While on a recent tour of the Downtown parking structures, Bayside District Corp. CEO Kathleen Rawson passed by a sticker slapped onto a wall and began to peel it off with her fingernail as if she was at home cleaning up after one of her children.

It was a simple act that may have gone unnoticed if not for the fact that Bayside, the public-private management company now in charge of over $3 million in property assessment funds, is moving aggressively to thoroughly clean and maintain the structures, which are used by millions of drivers each year and have earned a reputation for being filthy and soaked in urine.

For 30 minutes Rawson, along with Bayside’s director of operations, Andrew Thomas, walked up stairwells, visited bathrooms and rode elevators to demonstrate how clean Parking Structure 4 was in the weeks following an intense pressure washing by H20, a company hired by Bayside for $542,000 a year to routinely clean each Downtown structure (aside from those attached to Santa Monica Place).

Structure 4 is the first structure to undergo the intense cleaning, but others are to follow, with hopes that within a few months visitors will start to look at the structures, and Downtown, in a different light, ensuring that the shopping district remains vibrant for another 20 years.

“We had a well-deserved dicey reputation in terms of the cleanliness of Downtown because the resources weren’t there to maintain the amount of square footage we had, so people have these perceptions of what Downtown looks and smells and feels like,” Rawson said Tuesday. “It will take some time to realize there has been a change in how clean Downtown Santa Monica is.

“We don’t expect to get flooded with calls from people saying, ‘My goodness, it’s clean. Thank you,’” Rawson added. “Most people don’t really notice when something is clean, but they certainly notice when it is filthy and when it smells. That is being addressed right now and will continue to be addressed for the next 20 years.”

When property owners voted in July 2008 to form a new business improvement district that included three zones, each with varying assessments to reflect benefits received and frequency of service, attacking the dirt and grime in the parking structures was a top priority. Some felt City Hall with its limited resources needed help in the form of a private maintenance company and ambassadors to help serve as guides for visitors as well as another set of eyes and ears to help police and city maintenance crews.

Once funds were collected and dispersed in June 2009, Bayside’s board of directors, now comprised of representatives chosen by property owners as well as City Hall to provide equality in input, moved quickly to hire Block by Block to manage the ambassador program to a tune of $1.2 million a year. For another $473,000 Block by Block was also contracted to provide daily maintenance of the structures, such as sweeping and cleaning signs and walkways. H20 was brought in to do the dirty work, blasting away hundreds of pieces of gum as well as thick layers of carbon soot from autos.

“It’s not just wetting the surface,” said Thomas, who is supervising the maintenance effort daily. “They point the high pressure washing system at a piece of gum and they don’t move until the gum is evaporated.”

All the water used is collected and treated before being released, Thomas said, and all chemicals are environmentally friendly. Stairwells and elevators, which served as impromptu restrooms, are cleaned regularly and an ambassador is stationed at the entrance to Parking Structure 4’s restroom to make sure people feel safe and secure. There are even fresh flowers from the Farmers’ Market

Those looking closely can see the changes.

“It’s unbelievable. What a difference,” said Bayside board member and property manager Barbara Tenzer of Parking Structure 4, which she has parked in for 20 years. “The stairwells used to smell and now they don’t. They took off all the dust. Just the whole feeling is different. It feels cleaner and safer. Before, it was like a dungeon.”

Barbara Bryan, owner of the Interactive Cafe on Second Street and a Bayside board member, said she too could see and smell the difference in Structure 4 and believes keeping it clean will encourage others to do the same.

“People are less likely to trash a place when you can see someone is taking care of it,” she said. “I think this has been a very good improvement and a necessary one because the structures are often the first impression people have when they visit Santa Monica.”

City Hall earlier this year repainted several Downtown structures, giving each a distinct color. City maintenance crews still perform many of their former duties but under the new arrangement with Bayside, the structures are solely the responsibility of the management company. This, along with a collective management agreement, creates a system of checks and balances, Rawson said, where both sides, Bayside and City Hall, can inspect each others work.

Before the new assessment was approved, there were concerns raised about overlapping services and the potential for city employees to lose their jobs. Rawson said that isn’t the case. H20 and Block by Block help city crews and so far the relationship has been working. The job is just too big to do it alone.

“When you have a 20-room house, it’s easier to clean with five people than with one,” Bryan said.

Officials with City Hall could not be reach for comment.

Not only is Bayside having to prove itself to City Hall, but now more than ever property owners are demanding results since they are paying more.

“We are constantly going to have to prove to them what we are doing makes sense and that we are spending their money wisely,” Rawson said.

It will be challenging to change perceptions after so many years, Rawson admits, and judging from a few comments from visitors, she’s right. While some said they had noticed a difference while leaving Parking Structure 4, others could not and still felt the structure needed work.

“I can still smell [pee],” said Jeff N., who is a frequent visitor to the Third Street Promenade. “It’s the same … I think it can be improved. I feel like the bathrooms and the lobby areas are a bit messy.”

Robert Oppel had a different opinion.

“Yes, actually, I have noticed the crew with mops doing the stairwell,” he said. “Compared to other structures, this is very nice.”

Bayside is currently developing benchmarks to measure its progress. Rawson urges residents and visitors to check out Structure 4 and compare it to others to see the changes made.

“We have a lot to provide, especially in these difficult economic times, so it is our intention to not only keep up this pace, but to exceed people’s expectations as often as possible,” Rawson said.

And that includes sticker removal.

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