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Council Opts for More Ambitious Downtown Parking Plan

By Olin Ericksen
Staff Writer

May 15 -- While keeping their options open, City Council members last week were thinking big when they adopted the larger of two possible parking programs for Downtown Santa Monica.

With a 5 to 1 vote, council members last Tuesday approved as many as 1,712 new parking spaces in Downtown over the next ten years, 700 more than a competing program that was examined by staff.

Their vote, in essence, reaffirmed a goal of maintaining the current ratio of 2.1 spaces per 1,000 square feet of Downtown development.

The vote, however, does not mean the spaces are bought and paid for.

The council’s action, rather, gives the City the right to gradually approve the new spaces -- most of which will be in two new structures -- in a phased manner, while clearing obstacles for staff to begin acquiring land, which is at a premium.

“By adopting the full program tonight, we are not buying a single parking space,” said Ken Genser of the program, which he said serves as a road map to a future parking scheme.

As land is being snatched up for apartment and condominium conversions throughout the Westside of Los Angeles, including Santa Monica’s Downtown, the City must adopt a larger program to keep doors open, Genser said.

“The important thing is we need to buy the land quickly,” he said. “By doing it now, it allows us to preserve our options for the future.”

That land, if not used for parking, could be converted into a different use by the City, Genser noted.

While the four council members and officials agreed with Genser’s assessment, Council member Kevin McKeown dissented on the basis that approving the parking means approving increased density Downtown without public approval.

“We’ll have to be willing to say to the community… we anticipate 500,000 square feet of additional commercial development,” said McKeown, who noted it is coming at a time when the community is crafting design standards for the coming decades.

But Genser believes the half-million square feet of possible development could actually be less than it sounds and said he would personally be in favor of making Downtown a place where Santa Monica is actually more dense.

“My vision…would be to severely limit the commercial development, except in the Downtown,” he said. Of the projected half million square feet Downtown, he said, “It’s probably not all that much.”

Over a ten-year period, in an area of some 16 square blocks, that would be an additional 30,000 square feet per block, Genser calculated.

In addition to moving quickly to buy land before it is acquired by private interests, Genser said he favors the larger plan because it may actually disperse traffic Downtown, which is currently concentrated around the Second and Fourth Street parking structures.

It may also have the effect of creating more of a pedestrian-oriented commercial fair, as people park their cars at a yet-to-be-built Fifth Street parking structure and walk to the Promenade.

Yet McKeown wondered aloud if this would actually worsen traffic problems, a worry shared by most of the residents who visit Downtown on a weekly basis, according to a poll by the Bayside District Corporation, which found two-thirds of them complain parking is already a problem in the area.

“Is anybody else tired of ever increasing traffic,” he said. “More easy parking, not only disperses the traffic, it increases the traffic.”

Bayside officials, however, favored the larger of the two parking plans, which Bayside District Corporation Vice-chair John Warfel called “well conceived” and “flexible.”

“The majority of those residents feel that parking is a problem downtown,” Warfel said. Moving forward on the item, he said, will not lock the City into any commitments, but may help it pay less for parking in the long run.

“The phasing allows you to stop if the demand is not there,” he said, noting there is a biennial review of progress and parking occupancies.

In addition to laying the general groundwork for the 1,700 spaces, last week’s vote called for specifics, including:

  • Seismically retrofitting two nine-story parking structures (Numbers 2 and 4).
  • Tearing down and rebuilding three five-story parking structures (Numbers 1, 3 and 6), with as many as 712 additional spaces.
  • Adding as many as two new parking structures, containing a maximum of 1,000 additional spaces, in the area generally bounded between 4th Court, Wilshire Boulevard, 6th Court and Colorado Avenue.
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