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Seduced by Parking

By Frank Gruber

A few months ago my friend Chuck and I leased a two-office suite in an old building on Fourth Street in downtown Santa Monica. The suite comes with one parking space -- in a surface lot behind the building, accessed from the alley behind Broadway Deli.

This column is about parking, but -- speaking of the alley -- may I beg Broadway Deli and the other restaurants and businesses nearby, and the City, to do something about the rotting garbage they store in the alley and in the City's noisome trash collection operation underneath the parking structure?

Businesses downtown complain about the sanitary habits of homeless people, and the obnoxious behavior of grungy youths. Not excusing anyone's bad behavior, but speaking as someone who regularly uses that alley, the smells of feasting bacteria in the dumpsters, and the litter and leaking garbage around them, are far worse than the collective outrages of derelicts and spike-haired youth.

It's a shame, too, because whenever I turn the corner into the alley from Broadway the first smells are an enticing mix from the Deli -- onions, bacon, bread etc. A few steps later, these delicious smells are overwhelmed by the stink.

The City hires traffic service officers to make it nicer for drivers in intersections -- what about more sanitation workers to make life nicer for pedestrians in alleys? Maybe use a little hot water and soap and disinfectant to clean those dumpsters? Maybe empty them often enough so the trash doesn't overflow and the garbage doesn't have time to cook?

Whatever. This column is about parking. You're probably wondering, "What's it like to have your own parking space downtown?" Well, Chuck usually uses it during the day, because I usually ride my bike to the office -- my house is less than a ten-minute ride away, and I rely on that little bit of exercise.

But the space is also available to us at night, and there's nothing to make one feel more privileged than having one's own parking space in downtown Santa Monica -- at night. The fact is that, with some embarrassment, I have to report that I am living proof of one of the theories I promote -- namely, that parking begets driving.

In former, pre-parking space days, if my wife and/or son and I wanted to see a movie downtown, it usually was the occasion for a relaxing 25-minute walk from our house in Ocean Park. Or we might catch the bus on Fourth Street, or a bus or the Tide on Main Street.

But now, with the parking space -- forget it. Let's drive. Last Tuesday night we took our son and two of his friends to see "The Italian Job." The movie was at 7:30. We left at 7:18. We were parked by 7:22.

* * *


There's a story about Clark Kerr, the Chancellor of the University of California in the sixties, who unexpectedly resigned. When asked why, purportedly he replied that he was tired of it all: "The students only care about sex, the alumni only care about football, and the faculty only care about parking."

It was only a matter of time, but in 2001 Calvin Trillin published the first great American novel about parking -- Tepper Isn't Going Out. It won't be the last.

Just as archaeologists categorize ancient cultures by their arrowheads or pottery, future archaeologists will name our society the "parking culture" from our dominant artifact, the parking space. (A couple years ago I attended a planning conference and heard the astounding statistic that for every car in Southern California there are seven parking spaces.)

I could make a good argument that people moved to the suburbs not to have backyards for their kids to play in, but for more space to park their cars.

It amazed me last year when the City was working on its downtown parking plan to hear no growthers and NIMBYs who oppose everything go gaga over plans to build huge parking structures -- people who sputter and fume about a five-story apartment house but salivate over a seven-story parking structure.

* * *

What characterizes attitudes toward parking in our culture is the normative belief that parking should be free. People are not happy when behavior -- for instance, being required to pay for parking -- conflicts with the norm. They understand enough economics to know that lunch is never free -- but parking?

Parking is like sex, that other seductive good -- if you have to pay for it, it's not right -- not wholesome. This is probably part of our Jeffersonian agrarian heritage -- parking is free back home in farm country. When they make you pay for it, you know you're in the evil city.

I'm not joking. In the 19th century, nothing reflected the evils of the city more than prostitution, and now, to most people, nothing reflects the evils of the city more than having to pay to park.

Consider the skyscrapers in downtown L.A., the symbols of the lawyers and bankers and other power brokers who control our lives. Obviously, anyone who pays 20 or 25 dollars a day to park must be up to no good.

The real proof that our culture considers paying for parking on par with paying for sex, is the other meaning of the verb "to park" -- the romantic meaning. What could be more opposite than paying for sex than "parking?" And what could be more un-urban? Two sweethearts don't "park" in a parking structure, or next to a parking meter, but in the fragrant mists of a country lane.

* * *

Tuesday night when I got home after the movie and a stop at Ben & Jerry's -- isn't Santa Monica wonderful? -- I turned on the TV and watched the City Council debate a new preferential parking plan for the blocks on either side of Montana, from Lincoln to 17th Street.

What prompted the debate was a proposal planning staff made to take a new approach to preferential parking. Staff proposed that the City look at preferential parking on a district-wide basis rather than, as has been the practice, block by block.

The block by block approach tends to shift the burden of visitor parking to other blocks where residents may not be so well organized to petition for preferential status, or where, until the creation of preferential parking nearby, there wasn't a problem.

Part two of this two-part column will be about the staff's plan and what City Council did with it.
The views expressed in this column are those of Frank Gruber
and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of The Lookout.
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