CITY HALL — Visitors to Downtown can expect to pay more for parking after the City Council on Tuesday gave a preliminary nod to a series of rate increases that will bring the area’s garages closer to competitors like The Grove and Westfield Century City.

The changes, which will be instituted after city staff returns to council with a recommended plan of action, will increase the daily maximum rate from $7 to $9, raise the flat evening fee from $3 to $5 and the monthly parking permits from $82.50 and $121.

The rate hikes came out of a recent study by Walker Parking Consultants about occupancy at the Downtown garages, finding that there was a significant number of spaces that remained empty even during peak hours because of competition created at the more conveniently-located and cheaper public structures on Second and Fourth streets where the price of parking is substantially under market, leaving visitors to compete for those spots. Meanwhile the more expensive spaces at the private garages and the public structures that are on the outskirts of Downtown, including the Santa Monica Public Library and Civic Center, remain empty.

Even with the new rates, the Downtown shopping district would still fall below prices to park at nearby retail centers on the Westside — $22 maximum for Westfield and $24 at The Grove.

The study was conducted to explore raising rates to fund additional spaces as part of the Downtown Parking Strategy, but concluded that extra revenue is secondary to the money that City Hall and property owners would save if they don’t have to acquire land and build new garages. Instead, they need to better manage what exists.

“The areas in high demand are not expensive to park in,” Steffen Turoff of Walker Parking Consultants, said. “We thought by tweaking that you could earn some revenue but also really fix a lot of what’s ailing the parking in terms of all the impact to parking.”

During peak hours, the garages in Downtown as a whole are about 65 percent occupied. Structures 1-6 and 9, which line Second and Fourth streets and are the most conveniently located to the Third Street Promenade, are about 95 percent full during those times.

Turoff pointed out that the garages that are the least conveniently located — the Santa Monica Public Library and Civic Center Garage — are also more expensive.

The plan also includes raising meter rates from $1 to $1.50 an hour.

“We want to turn those spaces,” Turoff said.

The plan also includes reducing the two free hours of parking at Structures 1-6 and 9 to only one, charging $1 for the second hour.

The current policy has allowed employees to park in the structure for free, moving their cars every two hours and causing congestion.

“Any busy area where you have two-hour parking on the street you will see the employee shuffle, the two-hour dance where every two hours people move their cars in order to take advantage of that convenience,” Turoff said.

The consultant also suggested that City Hall facilitate agreements with private parking structures and businesses to allow Downtown employees to park at a special rate.

The parking rates were last adjusted in 1997.

“Parking is real estate — it’s real estate in terms of the building, it’s real estate in terms of the land and it’s real estate in terms of the area,” Turoff said. “Santa Monica is a desirable place.

“That’s one reason why you have a parking problem here.”

Councilman Bob Holbrook, who was the lone person to vote against the recommendations, said he had some reservations about raising the evening rate, believing that it would deter visitors from coming to Santa Monica.

“I’m just saying that for the vast majority of people I see coming to Santa Monica, parking does make a difference,” he said.

Michael Cahn, a local bicycle advocate, asked that city officials also study the impact that the recommendations will have on cyclists, specifically the potentially dangerous effect of increasing the meter parking rates.

“The result of the proposal is cars moving in and out many more times during the day from these on-street parking spaces,” he said. “These are the spaces that the cyclists are cycling along.

“These are the spaces where the doors are opening and the cyclists need to be aware of these doors opening.”

The proposal also received some concern from local business, Easton Gym, which is located on the promenade.

Oren Grossi, who works at the gym, said that the parking plan would discourage residents from using the structures.

He added that the increased hikes would also burden retail employees.

“I think people don’t realize how little retail employees make,” he said. “They usually don’t work full shifts and you might get them to park somewhere if you offer free or really cheap parking at the library or Civic Center.

“Those people are struggling and asking them to pay for their $8 or $9 an hour job is asking a lot.”

Councilmembers expressed support for the plan but remained concerned about the timeline of when the new rates would be in effect.

“These are some phenomenal ideas,” Councilman Richard Bloom said. “The last thing we want to do is move forward on this and take an extraordinarily long time to implement it.”

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