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Take valuables with you

Times Staff Writer

Federal court clerk Chris Sawyer gave up parking in his favorite lot near Olvera Street in downtown Los Angeles last summer when the monthly rate jumped to $100 from $55.

“I couldn’t afford it,” he said, “so I had to go back to Chinatown.” But that’s where his Jeep had been broken into, and his walk to the courthouse takes twice as long from there. Soon the price at his Chinatown lot climbed from about $60 to $80 a month.

Cheap, convenient parking -- as Southern Californians have long known and expected it -- is getting harder to find, particularly in high-density places such as Hollywood, Santa Monica and downtown Los Angeles.

Two hours in an office building garage in Century City can set you back $28, more than twice what it cost in the early 1990s. Club hopping in Hollywood? It could cost $60 before you even tip the valet.

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Commuters who paid as little as $80 a month in downtown Los Angeles in the early 1990s are being hit up for as much as $300 for unreserved spaces. Prefer a prime slot with your name on it? Be prepared to write a check for more than $500 a month.

Basic economics -- rising demand and declining supply -- explain the parking price surge.

With five years of economic growth adding a stream of new buildings and residents, many lots and garages are filling up or disappearing. Housing developers in particular have converted downtown and Hollywood lots into residential buildings. With downtown land prices now surpassing $300 a square foot, it doesn’t make economic sense to buy land just to use it for parking, consultants say.

The rise in prices also underscores the region’s transformation from an extended suburbia into a more densely occupied urban center with the kind of parking challenges more common in major metropolises such as New York or Chicago.

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Nowhere is the shift more evident than in downtown Los Angeles, where acres of asphalt are giving way to housing, stores and other attractions that people want to visit -- by car, of course.

Downtown prices are rising not only on standard surface lots, but also in the garages of fancy high-rise office towers as the buildings finally begin to fill with workers after many years of low occupancy.

The expectation of cheap parking has been kicked to the curb in parts of Hollywood, especially during peak weekend hours for the district’s popular nightspots. With 55 clubs in the area, parking lots intended to serve them are frequently overbooked.

“It costs $5 during the day, then $25, $40 or $50 after dark,” said Tricia LaBelle, owner of Boardner’s, a Cherokee Avenue watering hole since 1942. The scale often slides, she says, because some lot operators charge what they find the market will bear hour by hour.

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Sometimes the price even hits $100 to secure prompt valet service, club operator Elizabeth Peterson said, “but $60 is usually about the most on a weekend.”

There aren’t nearly enough high rollers to go around, though, and business owners worry that high parking costs will drive away the average clubbers who have been flocking to Hollywood.

“We have seen a dip in business at many clubs because people can’t get in here,” LaBelle said. “After years of dramatic increases, business is leveling off.”

Hollywood nightclub owner and restaurateur David Gajda called the high parking prices “an absolute mess.”

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“People are going to be so frustrated they are not going to come,” he said.

Eagle Rock residents Jacob Calvache and Angie Garcia got off comparatively easy late last Friday night, paying $20 to park next to the club Avalon at Hollywood and Vine.

“Everybody needs to make a profit, I guess,” Calvache said sarcastically. “It’s a little outrageous, but it’s not unexpected.”

Such price pressures could stunt Southern Californians’ storied love affair with their cars, some experts suggest, though most evidence of changes in behavior is anecdotal. Public transportation advocates say that rising costs of driving will push motorists into mass transit, especially if employers stop subsidizing their workers’ parking habits.

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“People are shifting,” said Bart Reed, executive director of the Transit Coalition, a nonprofit organization based in Sylmar. “They don’t like to pay for parking. If transit can replace that need, people will choose it.”

Thousands of Los Angeles County commuters already ditch their cars at Metro Rail stations every weekday so they can hop a train to work. Although general parking is free, some stops are so crowded that the Metropolitan Transportation Authority offers reserved parking for a price.

Higher prices are translating into fatter profits for parking lot owners. Each stall on the average downtown lot grosses about $10,000 a year, said industry expert Bill Francis of Walker Parking Consultants. So a lot with 100 parking spots would bring in $1 million with very little operating costs.

“Now is a good time to be a parking operator,” Francis said.

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Even with the increases, downtown Los Angeles parking prices are low compared with other downtowns, parking lot magnate Joe Lumer said. His company, L&R; Investments, controls about 100 lots and garages downtown, with more than 10,000 spaces.

“In cities like San Francisco, Philadelphia, New York and Seattle it can cost as much as $40 or $50 to park,” Lumer said. “The top [daytime] rate on a surface lot downtown is $10 or $12. There is no lack of parking.”

Left to market forces, though, parking prices will continue to rise, said Los Angeles City Councilwoman Jan Perry, who represents much of downtown.

“There won’t be a lot of space left in the next five to seven years,” Perry said. “I didn’t expect this to happen so quickly.”

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The city’s Community Redevelopment Agency is conducting a study that will consider abandoning a requirement, established in 1990, limiting how much parking could be included in new downtown office buildings. The intent was to compel office workers to park in structures on the edge of downtown and ride shuttle buses in. But most of them balked and signed up for cheap parking in nearby surface lots.

Other options include building the kind of massive public garages that have eased the parking burdens in Santa Monica, Beverly Hills and Pasadena.

Santa Monica’s success at creating a vibrant downtown, however, has taxed its parking resources and challenged its commitment to environment-friendly planning policies.

With its public parking structures filling up, the city has made some of its garages taller and plans to add 1,700 more spaces over the next decade, said Ellen Gelbard, deputy director of planning and community development.

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In downtown Los Angeles, parking is at such a premium in the historic core that the city should enact a moratorium on further developments that take away existing lots, said Michael Delijani, whose company owns three classic but rarely used theaters on Broadway, including the Los Angeles Theater completed in 1931.

“It might even be too late already,” Delijani said, to secure enough parking sites to revive the Broadway theater district that was once the West Coast equivalent of New York’s Great White Way. Twelve major historic theaters survive, but most have no parking.

Parking lot owners are ratcheting up their fees in the area around Staples Center as that district becomes more desirable.

Maguire Properties Inc. has more than doubled monthly rates, to as much as $130, at its 2,260-space garage at Grand Avenue and Venice Boulevard. The facility was once nearly empty, its gaping floors easily visible from the San Bernardino Freeway, making it one of the city’s most notorious white elephants.

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But the addition of Staples Center and new surrounding residences have made the garage desirable.

“We would have liked to have seen it happen a little sooner,” Maguire Senior Vice President Bill Flaherty said, “but now it’s generating a tremendous amount of interest.”

Student Michelle Carter walks for blocks around the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising looking for the cheapest parking, which has risen from $3 to $5 a day in the two years she has been studying product development at the campus near Staples Center.

“The closer to school it is, the more expensive it is,” she said. “It’s crazy.”

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Elizabeth Berger, an office worker at the nearby Petroleum Building, said her nonprofit employer has moved staff parking four times in the last five years because prices keep going up. Now she has about a 10-minute hike through a neighborhood that still feels dicey sometimes.

Many lots near Staples have flexible pricing that rises with demand created by events at the sports venue and the Los Angeles Convention Center. Before a recent evening Tool concert, for example, the price at one Flower Street lot climbed from $5 in the daytime to $15 before the show.

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roger.vincent@latimes.com

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Times staff writer Adrian Uribarri contributed to this report.


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