As more residents gobble up Los Angeles' street parking by securing special permits, city officials are considering doling out some of those coveted spots to businesses that have complained for years that their customers and workers don't have enough places to park.
From Sylmar to San Pedro, thousands of drivers vie each day for a limited number of spaces on the city's streets, particularly on the dense, traffic-choked Westside.
For some, relief has come in the form of a special parking district system that sets aside street parking for neighborhood residents. But the possibility that city officials might change the 29-year-old system to include businesses has some residents steaming. Some residents say these businesses should provide off-street parking.
"This stealing of preferential parking means those people who have money will grab our parking instead of investing in the properties in which they should be investing," said Danielle Elliott, a real estate agent who has lived in her Beverly Wilshire neighborhood for 40 years. "I don't begrudge an entrepreneur, but if you don't have the money to do business, it's not the responsibility of the community to support you to make certain you are earning money."
The proposal to include businesses in the permit system is part of a broader attempt to rethink the city's overall parking strategy as it struggles with increasingly knotty traffic problems. Many residents want the city to invest in building more parking garages and require businesses, especially restaurants, to provide adequate parking for customers and staff.
But a consultant's report completed for the city Department of Transportation last year found that the districts are "turning neighborhoods with public streets into what are essentially gated communities accessible only to the residents and the guests."
It recommends including businesses in the permit parking program.
Many residents say opening the permit system to businesses would cause further deterioration in neighborhoods already under siege from construction of large buildings.
Since it began in 1979, the city's residential parking permit program has mushroomed as more and more neighborhoods seek inclusion. The city experienced a 30% increase in applications to create preferential parking districts in 2007 over the previous year, according to Alan Willis, a city traffic engineer.
Currently, there are about 100 preferential parking districts citywide, of varying size, and they are growing at a rate of about 20 to 25 each year, Willis said. Most are on the Westside with a smattering in the San Fernando Valley, near bustling Ventura Boulevard.
Homeowner associations or other residents groups can apply to create a district. Residents pay $22.50 for an annual permit, $15 for a four-month visitor permit and $1.50 a day for a guest permit. They get stickers that allow them to use slots on streets posted with signs noting the parking is restricted to residents. (There are also overnight parking districts, which have different fees.)
Businesses are excluded from the program because the city leaders who created it wanted to protect residential neighborhoods from noise, traffic and litter created by nearby commercial areas. But as the city attempts to improve its sagging finances in part by fostering a better business climate and to make fairer use of its scarce parking, that attitude is changing.
"There's a decreasing supply of parking resources," Willis said. "There needs to be some sort of balance."
The report by consultant Andrea d'Amato found the existing system "inflexible" and said it favored residents "at the expense of the adjacent commercial establishments." It also found that parking rules "vary from block to block and even on different sides of the same block," leading to confusion.
"The resultant inefficient use of a scarce resource -- on-street parking," the report stated, "is stifling and even killing the growth of local restaurants and retail shops that create jobs, enhance the vitality of the area and make Los Angeles an attractive place to live."
The problem is not limited to Los Angeles, of course. Other American cities are looking to better use limited parking by charging fees for spaces in residential neighborhoods.
Pasadena is considering creating residential parking districts in which a limited number of non-residents would be allowed to use street parking in residential areas for a fee, with the revenue going toward neighborhood improvements.
In Boulder, Colo., up to four on-street parking permits per block are sold to the general public for $60 every three months. The revenue is used to subsidize residential parking permits.
San Francisco plans to start a pilot project this year that will allow parking rates to be adjusted based on demand. Using technology to monitor parking, the price will rise when spaces are scarce and fall when the supply is plentiful.
Some L.A. residents say that's fine for San Francisco, which has an efficient mass transit system.
But Los Angeles has no reliable alternative to driving, they say. Even business people aren't convinced the proposal will work.
"It might help the business community, but I don't think it's a big help," said Richard Leyner, president of the Encino Business Improvement District and owner of a company that leases retail space in the Valley. "People won't walk two to three blocks to go to a barbershop or meet with their CPA. You can't take money from Peter to pay Paul."
Ricky Gelb, owner of the Gelb Group, a property management company in Encino, said the city would be better off building more parking structures.
"A parking garage that holds 400 to 500 cars would soften the problem and keep people from driving around looking for parking," Gelb said. "Otherwise, people will go to the mall, where parking is free."
But the city isn't likely to build more garages soon. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa recently recommended the city shift a $56-million fund originally intended to build parking structures to the general fund to help cover a $406-million budget gap.
Contributing to the shortage in older neighborhoods, such as Elliott's, is that many of the buildings weren't designed to hold the number of cars per household that are common in Southern California today. Elliott said she has to buy a permit because there aren't enough garages in her small 1938 apartment complex for everyone.
Councilwoman Wendy Greuel, chairwoman of the council's Transportation Committee, said the city needs to do a better job of publicizing the parking it has. For years, she said, drivers avoided a city-owned parking garage on Ventura Boulevard in Studio City, opting to park on the street, even if they had to drive around several times to find a metered spot.
Part of the problem, she said, was that it cost more to park in the garage than on the street.
The city needs to adjust meter parking, she said, to make it less desirable and to steer people either to garages or to mass transit.
Greuel has not decided whether to support opening permit parking to businesses. The proposal is being discussed by a task force, which will determine whether to forward it to the council's Transportation Committee.
"This is part of a larger parking policy," Greuel said. "But there's no question we need to better manage our street parking. It's an integral part of traffic congestion."