Out of the Blue: The garage to gridlock

"We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there 'is' such a thing as being too late. This is no time for apathy or complacency. This is a time for vigorous and positive action." –The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

A turning point came in last year's presidential debates when Mitt Romney accused Barack Obama of weakening our defense by funding fewer naval ships then we had in 1916.

Obama responded that the nature of our military had changed, that we had things to mitigate the volume of warships needed, like ships that planes launch from, and ships that go underwater and carry nuclear warheads. He added that we no longer used muskets with bayonets. Which brings us to the Village Entrance parking structure.

Back in the early 1990s, when the Village Entrance (beautification and parking) Project was first approved, the fax machine was a space-aged device. People still hand wrote letters. And mailed them. We paid for music.

We didn't know about climate change, declining energy supplies, or that a great worldwide campaign would germinate to reduce our dependence on cars by retrofitting cities and towns with bike and pedestrian paths, car-free zones, promenades, parklets, and traffic calming measures. These cities weren't adding more parking lots. They were covering them with bike lanes, pathways, sofas and lawns. To paraphrase Joni Mitchell backwards, "they pulled down parking lots and put up a paradise." 

It's time for a public mandate to make Laguna less dependent on cars, easier to traverse with alternative transit, more connected to community, safer for everyone, and easier to evacuate. Part of that plan is an "outside-the-car" solution for moving more visitors in and out of town efficiently.

Cities with far more complicated infrastructures than Laguna — like L.A., New York, San Francisco and Paris, have begun enormous initiatives to relieve oil dependence, traffic congestion, pollution, parking scarcity and human isolation with healthy ways for the public to travel, interact, and gather.

L.A. has greater distances than us, San Francisco more hills, New York more congestion, and Paris more baguettes, yet they have all addressed issues of mounting congestion (and obesity) the same way: by reducing the footprint of cars rather than increasing it.

This is certainly not to say we don't need more parking. Though it really doesn't seem so bad to me. Perhaps its because I've lived in most of the aforementioned cities, so my perception of parking hardship is way different. But it is to say we need to apply more dimensional thinking about how we want to spend our energy and money, because we have so many more issues — and tools — in this quickly evolving time.

Why hasn't the parking structure been realized in all these years? Perhaps it's an unintended blessing. Maybe divine providence. Or just a healthy enough inertia from just the right people. It unquestionably benefits some of the most powerful stakeholders in our community — the tourist-serving merchants and arts (and certainly our community as a byproduct).

I am one of those merchants. I want more visitors. But I want to balance that with the realistic needs of the community in which I live. And to do that I need to accept that whatever volume of business I can generate in Laguna is, well, enough. Because none of it will matter if our quality of life is compromised by anachronistic planning and execution.

Will this be our Bridge to Nowhere? Our Garage to Gridlock? Or is it the best we can do in this moment in time when our credit is good, money is cheap, and the plans have been approved? Whatever transpires, it will be good fodder for the local papers.

The muckrakers, rabble-rousers, whistle-blowers, miscreants, malcontents, sore losers, and yes, some forward thinkers even, are circling the wagons and girding for a broader debate from our elected officials. They promise to use things like science, analysis, logic and deduction.

The City Council has nothing to fear. This is not career suicide. It won't diminish their legacy if it doesn't get built. The great promise of this parking structure is the debate it has spawned among the many smart people who care passionately about this marvelous town and it's opportunity to be much, much better.

Back in the 1970s, passionate citizens pushed for building-height limits when developers were drooling over high-rise hotels along our coast. Thankfully, we now have a low profile, quaint city that is one of California's most special places. We commissioned the world-class Montage Resort and Spa in a way that pleases most everyone aesthetically and fiscally. We've obstructed rampant urbanism and maintained the magical blue and green belts that course through our veins.

We don't need outside consultants. We need a committed citizenry to collate the successes of other cities into a comprehensive transportation project that's right for us in the longest term. And then a focused and creative city staff that finds the money, hires the engineers, and makes history by thinking big and going bigger. Let's make the Garage to Gridlock the Catalyst to Consciousness. Then we can all do a victory lap — on our electric bicycles.

BILLY FRIED is the chief paddling officer of La Vida Laguna and member of the board of Transition Laguna. He can be reached at billy@lavidalaguna.com.

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