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Council Endorses Flex Pricing at Meters

The City Council green-lighted imposing flexible rates on Laguna Beach’s parking meters, among a series of recommendations in a parking management study considered on Tuesday.

Other measures council members seemed keen on implementing soon included a shared valet parking system and incentivizing owners of private lots to open them to the public.

These were just some of the “toolbox” of parking strategies involving management, supply, pricing and zoning to be rolled out over the next five years and outlined in the latest draft plan by Irvine-based RBF Consulting. The parking consultants examined parking in downtown and along Laguna Canyon Road with an eye toward maximizing use of the existing spots.

Their recommendations, if implemented simultaneously, could improve parking efficiency by up to 30 percent, equivalent to creating over 400 new parking spaces, the consultants estimate.

Council members agreed with City Manager John Pietig’s recommendation to start imposing flexible, or “dynamic” pricing at parking meters as an inexpensive way to increase turnover in the most desirable locations while promoting greater occupancy in the peripheral lots.

The experts recommend charging the highest rate for on-street spaces in the heart of downtown, with lower rates for metered spots further from the town center and the lowest rates in off-street and peripheral lots. They also recommend charging more during the summer months, extending paid parking hours to 8 p.m. instead of the current 7 p.m., and replacing coin-operated meters with credit card enabled ones.

Currently, on-street metered spaces downtown charge $1 per hour, regardless of location, while drivers pay $2 per hour for off-street parking in the Glenneyre lot. With that pricing, there’s no incentive for visitors to seek peripheral areas first. “I’m not aware of any other city that operates that way,” marveled consultant Rick Williams.

Council member Steve Dicterow asked if the Coastal Commission constrains meter rate-hikes. The commission normally allows only a 25 percent increase per year, or 50 percent over three years, Pietig said, but suggested a pilot program might receive an exception.

At the very least, start by raising rates at some meters to $1.25 an hour, urged council member Toni Iseman.

Downtown and along Laguna Canyon Road, 1,547 parking spaces exist, with another 430 made available in the canyon and Laguna College of Art & Design parking lots in summer. Occupancy during the summer, regardless of location or day of the week, holds steady at 80 to 100 percent downtown, according to the consultants’ analysis, while the data shows that the canyon area rarely reaches capacity, with the exception of weekend on-street parking there.

Dynamic pricing is intended to encourage motorists to eschew the pricey downtown spots in favor of cheaper parking in the canyon during the summer.

To reduce the number of drivers circling the streets in search of a spot, the consultants suggested improved signage to let motorists know where parking is, how much it costs, and whether lots are full.

Two options for making more efficient use of smaller lots scattered through town drew the council’s attention: a shared valet system and branding lots available to the public.

The shared valet service involves setting up a number of curbside stations throughout the downtown. A customer simply pulls up to the curb, leaves the car and gets a ticket that they can then redeem at any of the stations. Council member Bob Whalen liked the idea, though he hoped the city would not take on managing lots.

Third party companies, such as those running valet services for many local hotels, could easily assume the task, said Peggy Trott, general manager of the Inn at Laguna, later pointed out. She offered to provide a list of potential candidates.

While valet stations would take up a few curbside spaces, parking cars in little-used lots where they could also be double-parked will exceed those lost, she said.

A strategy to incentivize private lot owners to open their spaces, such as a city-run system branded as “e-Park” in Seattle, proved a crowd pleaser. By paying a one-time fee to cover signage and branding and a negotiated annual fee to participate thereafter, the private lot effectively becomes part of a public parking network, explained Williams. Revenues accrue to the owner, and the lot might also be linked to real-time signage around the city notifying motorists of available spaces.

“It’s a big help to the city when private parking lots open up on the weekends,” said Mayor Pro Tem Elizabeth Pearson.

Visitors will be more apt to take advantage of the cheaper peripheral lots if they can be assured of reliable and frequent shuttle service to their final destination, the consultants noted. Improved walkability serves a similar purpose. To that end, the plan envisions sidewalk additions and improvements, and potentially a bikeway along Laguna Canyon Road.

Resident Chris Prelitz urged consideration of improving walkability, since it would encourage people to leave their vehicles behind.

While Larry Nokes, president-elect of the Chamber of Commerce, saw value in sidewalk improvements, he didn’t want that to detract from another goal. “If there’s one thing we really need it is more parking spaces,” he said.

The parking experts also suggested consolidating parking matters, currently regulated through four city departments.

Dicterow and Iseman praised the consultants’ study. But its breadth served as a reason the council opted not to adopt the plan in full. Pietig and the other council members echoed Pearon’s concern over the wholesale approval of such a wide array of recommendations.

Dicterow disagreed, saying he didn’t want to simply “cherry pick” it’s best parts but use the integrated package to make the best use of parking resources. He expressed the hope that it be kept “live” for later consideration.

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