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Southland Parking Heyday May Be Ending

This is outrageous.

They now charge an average of $140 a month to park a car in a downtown Los Angeles office building. For short visits, the average hourly rate is $4.70 and rising--provided you can find a place. Who can afford these prices for something that used to be so cheap and plentiful?

Calm down a little. In San Francisco, the average monthly downtown parking cost is $257, and in New York it’s . . . well, don’t even ask.

In parking, as in other things, Los Angeles is catching up with other “world-class cities.” Another element of our dusty pueblo’s bill of rights--the right to park inexpensively--is biting the dust. The most dramatic prices for commercial parking are posted downtown, but the pinch is being felt all over Southern California--from San Diego to the San Fernando Valley, and from Irvine to Westwood.

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Why? The same old broken record: We’re in the big time now. Congested, heavily populated and very busy.

“Downtown Los Angeles used to have a huge number of surface parking lots that provided cheap and available parking,” said William Francis, whose Western Parking Services surveys the state of parking here. “With all the new development, we are losing those lots. We’ve actually added more parking in the process, but it’s the much more expensive kind in underground garages and multistory structures.”

Parking and its cost have a little-understood but important influence on the economy. As long as parking is cheap and easy, people in this area will drive their cars everywhere. Smog regulators try to cut back parking for just that reason. Meantime, politicians and planners try to add off-street parking to reduce congestion. The result: mixed signals from the policy makers.

One thing is clear: Cheap parking helps business and contributes to Southern California’s reputation as a retail paradise. It makes possible four stops instead of one on a Saturday shopping excursion. No schlepping of packages on crowded subways here; we put them in the trunk.

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And it’s also clear that parking is another of our growth industries. In Los Angeles, business taxes paid by parking operators, which are assessed as a percentage of revenue, soared nearly 400% in the past 10 years. And the city expects to collect $22.5 million a year from its 10% retail tax on commercial parking, which went into effect just this month.

If parking becomes too expensive, people here may still drive--but to fewer places. And that undoubtedly will influence the pace of economic activity, at least the way it’s been practiced in Southern California since the arrival of the automobile.

What’s more, more than half the employers in Los Angeles are forced to subsidize parking costs to keep their employees and customers happy, and that has become part of the higher cost of doing business here that everybody complains about. If they don’t subsidize parking, a lot of companies can’t find employees who are able to pay the full amount or are willing to shift to the region’s inadequate and inconvenient public transit.

But let’s back up. It took more than the automobile to turn the Southland into the motoring capital; it also took lots of free parking. Southern Californians have always hated to pay for parking. They barked and whined when parking meters arrived in 1949.

And 35 years ago, if you charged 5 cents an hour to park in most lots, “people wouldn’t stand for it,” said parking veteran Stanley Long, president of the Parking Assn. of California.

So the region grew up with a tradition of cheap and plentiful parking, and that tradition has evolved into an expectation for those who come here now. But as population and development increase, the economics of parking is changing dramatically.

Maguire-Thomas Partners, one of the region’s biggest managers of office buildings, figures that it costs $12,000 to $20,000 to put one parking stall in a downtown office building these days, according to senior partner Ned Fox. A recent study by the Southern California Assn. of Governments estimated that the cost of land, construction, operation and maintenance adds up to $270 a month for each parking space in a new Los Angeles skyscraper.

“We’re shielding people from the real costs,” said Donald C. Shoup, a UCLA urban planning professor who co-authored the SCAG study. “Most people don’t realize how expensive it has become to provide new parking spaces.”

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This “shielding” is a direct result of our tradition of cheap parking. That tradition also created the widespread subsidization of employee parking costs in Southern California. The SCAG study discovered that the amount that downtown employers pay to lower the cost of parking ranges from $59 to $121 per month per employee. What that means is few people are actually paying that whopping $140 a month for downtown monthly parking. The employers share much of the burden.

Subsidies also come as “free” validation by retailers and some professionals for customers who use commercial parking lots. Nobody has estimated how much that costs business.

In other big cities, parking is not a right. In San Francisco and New York, there have been few minimum requirements for off-street parking in new office buildings. Most of the cars that park in the relatively few spots available are those of short-term visitors, not all-day employees. By contrast, about three-quarters of the cars that park in downtown Los Angeles belong to employees who work there, not visitors or customers.

In Southern California, we require at least one parking space per 1,000 square feet of space in a new office building. In some parts of the region, the requirements are much tougher. Beverly Hills, for instance, requires three spaces per 1,000 square feet. And politicians, responding to outcries from residents seeking to reduce street parking congestion, have raised the requirements for new buildings in a number of other areas. The idea, one planner says, is to prevent the Melrose Avenue or Ventura Boulevard syndrome.

We have subsidies and minimum parking standards because people here demanded them. We like our traditions. But the changed economics of parking is already fencing us in. The high cost of land and construction is making parking too expensive to permit employees to park all day for next to nothing--or shoppers and visitors to gallivant.

And that may finally do something that exhortations from smog abaters, high gasoline prices and billions of dollars spent on buses and Blue Lines haven’t: make us drive less.

GROWTH INDUSTRY

Business taxes paid by Los Angeles parking operators, which are assessed as a percentage of revenue, soared nearly 400% in the past 10 years.

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Los Angeles business tax collections from parking operators, in thousands of dollars:

1989: $1.89 million

Source: City Administrator’s Office

OFFICE BUILDING PARKING RATES

Jan. ’90 average Area Monthly Hourly Downtown Los Angeles $140 $4.70 Century City 115 3.90 Westwood/West L.A. 95 2.60 Miracle Mile 90 3.00 Beverly Hills 88 2.90 Hollywood 75 2.70 Santa Monica/Brentwood 72 2.20 Mid-Wilshire 67 2.60 Los Angeles/Northeast 67 2.30 Newport/Irvine/Costa Mesa 59 1.70 Culver City 58 2.00 San Fernando Valley 58 1.80 El Segundo/Torrance/LAX 51 2.10 Pasadena 45 1.40 Burbank/Glendale 46 1.20 Long Beach 42 1.40 Santa Ana/Orange 40 1.10

Source: Western Parking Services


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