DOWNTOWN — Parking rates at City Hall’s Downtown lots are going up, part of a plan city officials say will make more efficient use of parking structures and ease traffic congestion in Santa Monica’s clogged business and shopping district.

In the first significant rate hike since 1997, the daily maximum cost to park in any of the nine Downtown lots will increase from $7 to $9 per day, and the evening flat rates will increase from $3 to $5. The monthly rates will go from $82.50 to $121. The higher parking prices are expected to take effect July 1.

The increases don’t apply to the Main Library or Civic Center lots, part of a strategy City Hall officials hope will attract Downtown employees to more peripheral lots, freeing up spaces closer to the commercial core for shoppers and other short-term visitors.

“We’re doing it really with the intent to better manage the parking assets that we have,” said Sam Morrissey, City Hall’s principal traffic engineer.

The City Council unanimously approved the parking rate increases Tuesday night with little discussion. The panel had already agreed in concept to the parking plan last fall when consultants who studied parking presented their findings in a report known as the Walker Parking Study.

While the adopted price increases are mostly in-line with the Walker study’s recommendations, officials nixed one of its key provisions, opting to leave the existing two-hour free parking policy in place. The Walker study had suggested allowing just one hour free in order to discourage employees form repeatedly “shuffling” their cars throughout the day to get around paying parking fees.

Downtown businesses opposed the one hour free proposal and managed to kill it before the parking plan reached the City Council.

Kathleen Rawson, CEO of Bayside District Corp., the public-private entity that manages Downtown, said maintaining the two-hour free parking window was “one of the really important, key recommendations that Bayside made” to City Hall.

While she said “it’s not good for the employer or the employee to move their car every couple of hours,” she said Bayside members believed eliminating the two-hours free policy could have had bad economic implications.

“The board felt very strongly that first of all this is not the time to do that — giving a customer a reason not to come [Downtown] was not high on the priority list,” she said.

Morrissey said even with the increase Santa Monica is “still among the more modestly priced parking areas” in the L.A. region.

But at least some Downtown employees said higher parking costs could impact business.

David Tucker, manager at Locanda Del Lago restaurant, said the new price structure “seems a little high” and should include a discount for local employees.

Kyle Mathis, who owns Kyle Mathis Hairdressing, said the rate hike would have the biggest effect on those who buy monthly passes.

“Seven dollars to $9 isn’t a big deal. It’s not going to ruin [customers’] day,” he said. “But people that are paying $85 to $120 — that’s a big jump. That’s what’s going to make people mad.”

Brendan Dulley, general manager at the Tudor House, agreed the monthly rate hike would have an impact.

“I work six days a week … . I utilize my pass enough, [but] not enough for $120,” he said. “That’s quite a lot.”

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