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Parking meter rates fuel ire

Mary A. Castillo

The cost of parking meters throughout Laguna has some merchants

and customers seeing red. Councilwoman Cheryl Kinsman hopes that an

agenda bill she plans bring to next Tuesday’s City Council meeting

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will deliver relief.

According to Kinsman, the agenda bill will be a request for the

city treasurer to determine how much increased revenue has been

raised from the meter hike and a request for the council to consider

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raising the two-hour meters to three hours (or decrease the fee from

$1.50 to $1 per hour). It also asks that staff review the proposed

allocations from the rate hike to see if the city can find another

way to pay them if the hike is rescinded.

Mayor Toni Iseman indicated that she wants to discuss solutions,

including the possibility of reactivating the free shuttles from Act

V on weekends during non-summer months or use the system for Downtown

business employees.

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“We can’t lose track of the ultimate goal, which is to keep our

downtown vibrant,” she said.

The parking meter increase from $1 an hour to $1.50 was initially

proposed on June 18 by then Councilman Paul Freeman. The revenue

would be earmarked for city projects as well as for grants to local

nonprofit organizations this year and in subsequent years would go to

the Village Entrance and parking structure projects.

Only one representative from the merchant community, Laguna Beach

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Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Anne Morris, spoke out against

the meter increase and encouraged the council to increase the time

from two hours to three at that meeting.

The motion to increase parking rates passed four to one; Kinsman

dissented on the basis that there had yet been a comprehensive

traffic circulation study that could determine how much more revenue

the increase would yield.

A week later, city staff returned with a conservative estimate of

$675,000 to $700,000 generated from the increased parking rate. The

council adopted, 4-1, the 2002-03 city budget, which included a

schedule of allocations totaling $700,000. The increased rate went

into effect Sept. 1.

“At the time, I questioned how do we know if we raise the meter

rate that the same number of people will use the meters,” Kinsman

recalled in a phone interview. “We assumed that people would pay it.”

Local merchants are quick to point out that people are not willing

to pay $3 for the maximum two-hour time, turning to the free parking

at malls and the newly opened Crystal Cove Shopping Center for

holiday shopping.

“I had people in here [Sunday] from D.C.,” said Bree Cox, owner of

Satisfy My Soul, an urban clothing store on Laguna Avenue. “They said

Laguna was more expensive than New York City, and not only that, they

have Sundays for free.”

In the six months that her boutique has been open, Cox feels that

the lack of parking has eroded the good will she tries to establish

with her customers.

“I had a gal who was in a fitting room, enjoying herself and kept

putting clothes on the counter,” Cox recalled. “All of a sudden she

screamed that she had to move her car.”

Her customer ran out of the store promising to come back and

purchase the merchandise. Ten minutes later she drove up to the

store, angrily waving a parking ticket and yelled that she couldn’t

find a parking space. The incident cost Cox an estimated $550 sale.

“And that was before the increase,” she said, her frustration

evident in her voice.

As customers have become noticeably scarce, she wondered how the

city will balance the loss of sales tax revenue and possibly less

frequently used parking meters.

“I love this town,” she said. “But the city is taking the joy out

of having this store.”

John Madison, owner of Madison Square Garden, sees both sides of

the coin.

“I understand why the city did it but I’m also a business man,” he

said. “People want convenience and if they can’t get it, you’re going

to lose a lot of business.”

Most of his customers’ complaints are not having enough change to

feed the meters and not getting enough bang for their quarter. He

hopes that the city will look into adding more change machines in

strategic locations throughout Laguna.

“I think it’s going to eventually impact residents who live on

streets near businesses,” he said. “Why pay $3 when you can pay

nothing?”

However, changing two-hour meters to three hours and rolling back

the meter fees will be tricky, City Manager Ken Frank said.

“There will be fewer parking tickets issued,” he admitted. “But

the problem is that you’ll have more beachgoers and Downtown business

employees parking all day in Downtown.”

He felt that less meter turnover may turn away customers who

frequent resident-serving businesses, such as shoe repair, cleaners,

pharmacies, cafes and dog groomers.

“It makes no sense to take parking spaces by the people who are

not customers,” Iseman agreed.

There also remains the question of how the city will honor the

one-time allotments from the parking revenue promised to projects and

organizations throughout the community, not to mention the funds for

the Village Entrance.

Frank indicated that only $65,000 of those funds have been spent.

“Money to the South Laguna Village Improvements, the Boys and

Girls Club and the Laguna Beach Community Clinic hasn’t been

dispersed,” he said, listing some of the beneficiaries. “But they’ve

been told that they’re getting those grants.”

Although the chamber stands to benefit from the parking meter

revenue with a grant of $45,000, it is encouraging members to speak

out at Tuesday’s City Council meeting.

“We thought it was a package deal,” Incoming Chamber President Ken

Delino said of the support the chamber lent to the City Council. “We

thought with the increase to $1.50, we’d also get an increase to

three hours.”

But after the rate hike went into effect Sept. 1 merchants felt betrayed when the hour limit wasn’t increased and they noticed that

in some cases, a 20% slide in business during the months of October

and November.

Delino cautioned that it is too early to determine if the meters

or a nationwide slump in the economy is to blame for declining

business.

Still, he hopes that the strong feelings stirred by the issue will

result in a more proactive relationship between businesses and City

Hall. He hopes to organize a committee of merchants who can act as an

advisory committee for the city.

“We’re in this together,” he said. “Everybody shares a concern

about Downtown. And to preserve it, we’re going to have to keep it

prosperous.”

Kinsman was surprised that few if any merchants spoke out against

the parking meter increase back in June. With Iseman, she expects

that there will be a sizable audience at Tuesday’s meeting.

“Now that they’re seeing and feeling the effects of it, I would

like to hear what they have to say,” she said.

“There’s no one on the council who doesn’t want the downtown to

thrive,” Iseman said. “I have a real concern that we must do what we

can to help local merchants.”

The City Council meeting will begin at 6 p.m. Tuesday in the City

Hall Council Chambers, 505 Forest Ave.


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