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The peaks and valets of parking in Culver City

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Times Staff Writer

By dinner time on most nights in downtown Culver City, a steady flow of traffic fills the city’s three public parking garages and scores of metered spaces, spilling out into residential streets.

It is evidence of the community’s cultural and culinary renaissance, which includes galleries, shops, wine bars and upscale restaurants. But there’s a price to be paid for this commercial revival: more congestion, cranky locals and frustrated consumers who can’t quite understand what’s happened to the once-quiet town.

What’s a newly popular city to do?

Enter valet parking.

In recent weeks, parking attendants have been picking up cars at three stations on Culver Boulevard and parking them in private lots nearby.

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Mayor Scott Malsin sees the new valet service, coordinated by downtown businesses for the first time in city history, as another sign of his city’s transformation. By adding valet parking, Culver City -- population roughly 40,000 -- is following such revitalized areas as North Hollywood’s NoHo Arts District and Old Pasadena. City officials, business owners and locals say the valet service may not completely solve the parking crunch, but it adds a high-class touch to their downtown.

The service debuted earlier this summer with a dozen attendants. A few days later, the new Batman movie “The Dark Knight” opened, and the valets were overwhelmed. Traffic backed up on Culver Boulevard, and drivers complained.

Managers quickly doubled their staff and raised the price from $5.50 to $6.50. Now an average of 1,100 drivers use the valet service each week, said Brad Saltzman, president of Regent Parking, which manages the service.

Last month, those customers included the casts of the HBO comedy “Entourage” and the sketch comedy “Mad TV,” Debra Messing of “Will & Grace” and Danny DeVito, who brought wife, Rhea Perlman, to Fraiche for dinner.

Culver City resident Michael Clarke, 49, unsuccessfully searched for parking last month with his mother-in-law and 11-year-old daughter in tow before using the valet service. He was impressed.

“It’s pretty quick,” said Clarke, a financial advisor.

Garreth McClain, 39, used the valet parking after he and his wife, Christine, drove up from Redondo Beach on a Saturday night last month to check out Gyenari Korean Barbecue & Lounge, where actors Macaulay Culkin and Mila Kunis were recently spotted.

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“We have kids and we’re paying $20 an hour for a baby-sitter, so I don’t want to drive all around looking for a spot,” McClain said “It’s pretty important.”

The service is similar to “shared” or “clustered” valet stations recently added in Beverly Hills.

Drivers follow signs to curbside valet stations and drop off their cars. Two dozen attendants then park the cars on Washington Boulevard or two private lots about half a mile away, with space for 210 cars. With cars rotating in and out, they can park a total of 600 cars a night.

Downtown business owners say they are pleased with the valet service, which has drawn the attention of developers on theater row in Hollywood, Sherman Oaks and the 3rd Street corridor between Fairfax Avenue and La Cienega Boulevard. Managers at the Culver Hotel and Kirk Douglas Theatre recently contacted Saltzman about adding their own valet stations.

“When people drive all the way to Culver City, we want to give a nice welcome,” said Fraiche owner and general manager Thierry Perez.

At Fraiche, a restaurant frequented by A-list celebrities, the average wait for a table is three to five weeks, Perez said, and “they expect valet.”

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Celebrities do not want to risk a run-in with paparazzi and crowds as they walk from the garage or a waiting car, Perez said.

Mark Salkin, 60, is a Culver City real estate broker who said he often has trouble finding parking.

Salkin, a founder of the Culver Crest Neighborhood Assn., said that as the city grew during the last decade, attracting businesses downtown and to the Hayden Tract, an industrial hub nearby, demand grew for more parking to supplement the public lots, the newest of which was built in 2003.

“We knew when the city built these parking structures it would be inadequate, but we never thought in our wildest dreams that it would be this successful,” Salkin said, adding that if the city does not expand available parking, “we’re going to be getting to gridlock in a short while.”

There are about 1,500 spaces in the city’s three parking garages, in addition to 185 metered parking spaces on the street.

City officials have applied for a Caltrans grant to install “smart parking” signs at all three city garages by 2010, Malsin said.

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The signs, similar to those on Santa Monica garages, display the number of available spaces, adjusting the totals automatically as cars leave.

Santa Monica has a dozen downtown parking garages with a total of about 6,600 spaces, plus 582 metered spaces, said Ellen Gelbard, the city’s assistant director for planning and community development.

Seven of the garages are equipped with smart parking signs, and the city has received a $533,000 grant to install the signs at beach parking lots, which have an additional 5,357 spaces, by 2011.

Santa Monica’s 27 downtown valet stands are city-licensed but privately operated.

The city’s smart parking system displays open spaces online so that drivers can check on home computers or BlackBerrys at www.parkingspace now.smgov.net before they arrive.

“They love having that ability,” Gelbard said.

Culver City is commissioning a study this year of how parking is used and managed downtown, at a cost of $50,000 to $90,000, Malsin said. The study will help officials decide whether to expand the valet service, reallocate parking within existing garages or build more, he said.

Spaces reserved for businesses in city garages were part of the package city officials used to lure new retailers during the last decade, Malsin said, but now the area may be popular enough to eliminate the perk.

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Karen Kurokawa, 46, leads the Gateway Neighborhood Assn., whose members complain about the influx of downtown visitors and employees parking on their streets. She is pleased with the advent of valet parking but will be watching to see what the city parking study says about its effect on residential street parking, she said.

“The more popular the spot gets, the more it becomes a problem,” Kurokawa said of parking. “I was thrilled to hear the city was willing to try something different with the valet. Whether this is the right difference, I’m not sure.”

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molly.hennessy-fiske @latimes.com

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Culver City parking

See what life behind the wheel is like for a self-proclaimed Culver City “valet girl” at latimes.com/california.

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