Out of the Blue: Parking structure? How about transportation hub?

Tuesday's City Council debate of the Village Entrance project was buzzing in impassioned discourse. Dozens spoke eloquently for and against the $50 million parking structure, local luminaries from business, arts and politics.

They made emotional pleas (to considerable applause) that either the council should slow down and let the public decide, or the council should speed up because the timing was never better to finally realize the additional parking so desperately needed. Some even intoned that this was the council that had "the stones" to get it done.

Despite the polarizing debate, the one thing they all shared in common was their age — none but Aaron Telerico was on the short side of 50. Many were prophesying they wouldn't be here by the time the 25-year loan was paid off. Which is perhaps why they just can't imagine a future without oil, let alone plan for it.

Yes, there was the vexing question that went something like this: "What if the economy tanked and our parking meters could no longer service the debt?" We'd have to draw on the (gasp) general fund — our money, ladies and gentlemen.

But no one asked what would happen if the environment tanked and how 200 more spaces and $80 million (including interest) blown would solve the problem of dwindling oil supplies, or the ever-increasing need for disaster preparedness and evacuation planning. It's as if Katrina and Sandy never happened.

What if we build it and in 30 years nobody comes — because there's no more gas? And how will it help us when thousands of people need to get out of town immediately because of, well, name the disaster.

My buddy and fellow Transition Laguna board member Chris Prelitz and I were ruminating on this following the council meeting. And then we hit on it. If we just think a little bigger, a little broader in aspirations, the Village Entrance could actually be Phase 1 of a very comprehensive retrofit of our city that leaves a true legacy of urban planning and sustainability that will make our town more livable, less congested and certainly less oil dependent.

First, imagine the extra space we would create (and safety we would ensure) by undergrounding those dreaded power lines in the canyon. At one time Chris and I thought it would make sense to build a bike path, but on Tuesday we realized the real solution is a rail system that takes us from downtown (or Act V) to the Irvine train station. From there a person could get to San Diego, Los Angeles and San Francisco with bike in tow.

Just as important, visitors could now leave their cars at the station and take the train to town. When they get here they can walk, trolley and rent a bike or even a Zip Car. If we could engineer transcontinental rail lines in past centuries, surely we can build a 10-mile route today.

Now the parking structure makes more sense as a transportation hub, used year-round by visitors and locals, instead of by visitors for just the three months of summer. Most importantly it could provide a safe, secure evacuation system for our community.

There's more. To truly connect the dots, imagine a slow-moving trolley that runs from end to end on Ocean Avenue, from the parking structure to the beach. You'd only eliminate the 36 spaces that run parallel to the street on the south side, but gain a quaint, retro people-moving street that would instantly transform the rather drab, parking lot-centric thoroughfare that it is today. And you wouldn't sacrifice a car lane in the bargain.

Finally, you run one more slow-moving trolley end to end on the Forest Promenade, the lower section of the street that you close to cars permanently. Add to that safe bike and pedestrian paths and bike rental kiosks all over town, and now you are prepared for any petroleum scarcity and you've beautified the town, taken more and more cars out of circulation, and you're having a blast participating in it all.

But how do we fund this massive undertaking? How did we build the Hoover Dam? I have no clue. But someone who does know sits on the council. Plus there are countless other experts, visionaries and philanthropists in this town who could see this through.

I agree with Allan Simon when he said that borrowing $30 million at a low interest rate through a revenue bond (that can be repaid through parking) is a relatively small deal in a town with assets like ours.

After all, Mayor Michael Bloomberg just announced a $20 billion plan to fortify New York against rising water. He views climate change as “the defining challenge of our future.” As to the cost, he explained, “the price tag was high. But the cost of not taking action would be higher.”

So let's go big and create a comprehensive transportation plan now, one that is rendered elegantly and resourcefully to bring people together and simultaneously prepare for an uncertain energy future, something truly magical that is cherished by future generations as something their forefathers did presciently to ensure the resilience of their town for generations to come. Something that makes our town more manageable, breathable, livable and affable. That's a community and political process I want to be a part of.

BILLY FRIED is the chief paddling officer of La Vida Laguna and member of the board of Transition Laguna.

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