There are a lot of metaphors for politics, but I never imagined one could be made out of an orange traffic cone.
Behind the Old House Garden Cafe in Laguna Beach there are six parking spots. The restaurant is only open for breakfast and lunch, so every afternoon the restaurant closes and the parking spots are dutifully blocked off. It’s been that way for years, even when it was Madison Square & Garden Cafe.
The practice of blocking off parking in business areas is common. Old House Garden Cafe is doing nothing wrong. Businesses don’t want to carry extra liability insurance if they don’t have to.
But as I was looking at the traffic cones — remember that the very popular Urth Caffe is right next door — I watched with interest as car after car hovered in the area looking for a spot, spewing exhaust like silent leaf blowers.
And then I remembered politicians.
For years, Laguna city leaders have been talking about improving parking — since “before I was born” type years. But I distinctly remember several years ago there was talk about “public-private” plans to partner with businesses to improve parking.
Yet here are orange traffic cones.
Granted, there are only six spots here, but that’s six cars that are not parking in the impacted residential neighborhood in North Laguna.
Urth has very little parking either, and because Urth is a tourist destination, residents suffer. Add to the fact that every other nearby business requires employees to park in a very dense neighborhood, and you can understand why orange cones are important.
They represent everything wrong with Laguna’s parking policies.
Stay with me here while it gets a little wonky.
It was 2013 when the City Council approved an updated parking plan. In that plan, which was created by RBF Consulting, there were good suggestions on partnering with private businesses to capitalize on under-utilized parking (e.g. unused after-hours spaces).
In fact — and this might come as a surprise — Laguna Beach, a town with crushing parking problems (some would say world-famous parking problems) has more private parking available than there is off-street public parking.
And most of that private parking is available but just not used.
In the parking report I mentioned, in an apples-to-apples comparison it said there are 1,568 private off-street parking spaces, compared to 1,360 public off-street spaces. There are an additional 977 public street spaces, of which many are metered.
So why then doesn’t the city encourage businesses to open their lots? Well, there’s no easy answer, which means it’s political.
There have been attempts to do so. Virtually every place you see a $20 valet is an attempt to maximize private parking. Many of those are privately owned and operated. Others are the result of the city’s parking efforts — with mixed results. For example, there were valet trials at the Boys and Girls Club, the Pavilion’s lot, Laguna College of Art + Design (LCAD) and the hospital.
To address insurance concerns, there have been creative suggestions to cover costs, including a sliding scale business fee on bigger players (like Wells Fargo) to help smaller businesses.
The bottom line continues to be the same: Nothing has really worked.
The parking utilization downtown in the summer has not significantly changed. It’s beyond gridlock and is projected to get worse, despite talk of autonomous cars and miracle apps.
Essentially every official parking lot, surface space and secret alley nook is used in the summer, particularly if it’s anywhere near downtown and the public.
Even in winter, utilization often reaches 80 to 85%, which is considered full capacity.
The businesses, Chamber of Commerce, City Council and parking gods need to meet in a neutral parking lot and figure this out. Everyone pays $2 an hour until the job is done.
This is just one example of why Laguna voters might say enough is enough this year. People want change. It’s been too many years of expensive studies with little to no action.
There are three of five open seats on the council.
That’s three parking spaces.
Three orange cones ready for a new life.
David Hansen is a writer and Laguna Beach resident. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.