Hansen: City eyes downtown private parking

During summer, the downtown Laguna Beach Wells Fargo is not so much a bank but a beach parking lot.

With spaces at a premium, the centrally located bank lot is highly coveted — with rates to match. It's these types of parking operations that the city has its eye on.

In discussing its upcoming Parking Management Plan, the city is putting all options on the table in an effort to avoid building an expensive new parking structure.

"You've got places running two businesses, like the banks," Planning Commissioner Norm Grossman said. "They are a bank during the day and a parking lot at night. And they're basically running the parking lot for free, as far as the city is concerned. The city is getting nothing out of that."

Currently, there are about 400 private spaces during the summer that are not used, according to estimates. That's almost 25% of the city's roughly 2,000 downtown inventory, so it's a sizable number.

Officially, the city wants to work through the public review process before making any decisions, but these private lots are becoming attractive. Plus, in their current status, they can be problematic legally.

The fact is, you can basically put up a red velvet rope and podium and voilà, you are a private parking lot in Laguna Beach charging $20 a day.

"We know there's a potential pool of private parking spaces that could be utilized," City Planner Monica Tuchscher said. "There's these secondary businesses that may not be quote-unquote legal, and one method is to try to … gain revenue from that to offset other expenses."

Most cities and law enforcement agencies do not enforce private parking violations, following the lead of the state's attorney general, who ruled in 2011 that private citations are unenforceable.

To bring better order and accountability to private lots, the city may propose a parking tax on businesses.

"The biggest issue in the past on private lots has been a fear of liability," Grossman said. "And what several cities do is they solve that by imposing a parking tax, and then they use the money from the parking tax to fund a blanket policy."

So why would Wells Fargo, for example, which already has a well-oiled private parking machine want to pay this extra tax?

"Because it's fair," Grossman said. "Because they're running a second business. They're a bank; they're not a parking concern. They're making money, and if the city decides to tax a portion of that, they're making a little less money but it's still all profit."

Everywhere you look in downtown Laguna you see private parking signs or "tenants only," especially off the smaller streets and back alleys. Even the Laguna Beach library is in on the action.

"It's a unique situation," County Librarian Helen Fried said. "The parking is very difficult in Laguna Beach just because it's so congested and there's no space available."

There is no other Orange County library that charges for off-time parking, but Laguna has done it for years because of the opportunity. The funds actually go back directly to the library through an agreement with the city and Friends of the Library, Fried said.

While the library's arrangement does not explain why they have a whopping 12 spaces allocated exclusively for staff and only 16 for the public, the good news is all of the funds are staying local.

Meanwhile, as the private-public parking issue works its way through the upcoming hearings (the next one is March 20), it is a good time for the public to get involved, especially business owners, Grossman said.

"It's hard to get local businesses to show up for these meetings," he said. "It is very difficult. So we have not heard a lot from local businesses one way or the other."

Perhaps the business owners are too busy raking in the cash from their parking lots.

DAVID HANSEN is a writer and Laguna Beach resident. He can be reached at davidhansen@yahoo.com.

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