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With parking at a premium, house may be the price

Long Beach plans to tear down a home to add a mini-parking lot in Belmont Shore, angering some residents even though they must fight for curb space with visitors to the trendy strip of businesses.

By Christine Mai-Duc

8:17 PM PST, February 19, 2014

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When the weekend rolls around, many locals in Belmont Shore don't even bother to leave home. At least not in their cars.

Parking in "the Shore" is so notoriously difficult that residents are accustomed to circling the neighborhood, block by block, in search of a parking spot, and consider themselves lucky to find one close to home.

It became so bad that businesses agreed 25 years ago to tax themselves to increase parking spots and the city formed a neighborhood parking commission to tackle the problem, handing over local parking meter revenue to help pay for a solution.

Now, with few options left, the city is considering a new approach — buying out one of the homeowners, knocking down the house and turning the land into a mini-parking lot.

The strategy would be a starting point in bringing some relief to a densely packed 14-block stretch of 2nd Street — the main thoroughfare in the Long Beach community, where residents tangle with visitors drawn to the area's popular bars and shops.

It would also clear more than $680,000 off the commission's books — money from a $3.7-million bond that must be spent by year's end or paid back to help erase the debt.

But not everyone in the community is happy with the prospect of losing even one neighbor to make room for parking.

Nearly 30 years ago, a local bank bought a neighboring house and demolished it for customers' parking, but the community protest was so fierce and sustained that it took nearly a decade for the parking spots — all nine of them — to be unchained.

Now the residents, weary veterans of the parking wars, are ready to do battle against what they deem another intrusion into the upscale community.

"It destroys the whole ambience of the shore," said Melinda Cotton, a resident of 30 years who lives eight blocks from the proposed mini-parking lot, located behind Simmzy's, a popular burger and beer joint.

More and more, Cotton said, her neighborhood is becoming a party destination. "That was not what Belmont Shore was supposed to be."

Built in the 1920s when the famous Red Car rail line was blocks away, many of the homes lack usable garages and streets are poorly planned for parking.

As new restaurants and bars have had booming success in recent years, the trickle of customers to mom-and-pop stores has been replaced with dinner crowds and late-night revelers.

The city has tried alternatives, including providing bus passes to employees along the strip in an effort to encourage them to leave their cars at home, but it's not enough.

Residents who want preferential parking permits have been told the issue is unlikely to pass muster with the California Coastal Commission's beach access restrictions. And an idea to shuttle employees and visitors from often-empty beach lots has met with opposition from some neighbors who don't want the vehicles running on their streets, and raising meter rates — currently 50 cents an hour — would probably draw the ire of business operators.

Mike Sheldrake, president of the business association who has owned a coffee shop there for 38 years, says finding a solution is particularly difficult because no one seems to be willing to compromise.

"We have homeowners who want this to be a quiet little seaside community and the business owners who want it to be like the strip in Vegas, he said. "And then the commercial real estate owners want this to be Rodeo Drive."

The city began closed-session negotiations for the property in November and made an undisclosed offer, which was accepted in mid-December, said Victor Grgas, an asset manager for the city's Public Works Department. The deal must ultimately be approved by the City Council.

First, though, it will be considered by the Belmont Shore parking commission, an advisory body that controls more than $2 million in parking meter revenue and business taxes, money that was collected to — somehow, somewhere — find more parking. The commission will consider the real estate deal Thursday, and although it has no decision-making power, the City Council rarely opposes the body's recommendations.

Gail Mutke, who has owned the house next to the property for 42 years, says it wasn't until her husband called the seller's real estate agent last week that they realized what the city was planning. Mutke is angry that she and her neighbors weren't informed before an offer was made, calling the deal underhanded.

Bill Lorbeer, a Belmont Shore commercial property owner who heads the parking commission and brought the issue to the attention of the council, insists that the city needed privacy to successfully negotiate the deal.

He calls the neighbors' claims that the city attempted to hide the process "disingenuous."

"This plan, this process has been on the books for 25 years," Lorbeer said. He and other commercial property owners have collectively paid nearly $1 million into a fund since 1989 with the understanding that the money would someday be used to buy homes and convert them to parking.

All these years later, he said, the city has yet to buy a single piece of land to increase parking capacity.

"It just screams unfairness to me," says Lorbeer, who also owns a number of residential properties behind businesses that could potentially be turned into parking lots. One reason it's taken so long is that the city cannot use eminent domain and must wait for a willing seller. Now that there's an opportunity, Lorbeer says, the city should take it.

But Cotton and other residents worry that the city's attempt to purchase the home on La Verne Avenue is just the beginning, despite assurances that there is only enough money to buy one or two houses. Residents fought a similar battle in the early 1990s after a city consultant recommended that the city buy more homes for parking; Cotton says there's still $700 in the bank account they used during their campaign.

"If they can get away with taking this one lot," she added, "they'll be opening the door to take more."

christine.maiduc@latimes.com